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Ethics Commission again rewrites campaign finance laws

Josh Moon

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Ignorance of the law is no defense, unless you happen to be a person who makes the laws.

The Alabama Ethics Commission on Wednesday voted unanimously to — for the third time — wipe away the fees levied against politicians, donors and political action committees who violated campaign finance laws by filing reports late.

In some cases, the filings — which show the public the sources of candidates’ campaign contributions — were nearly a month late. An attorney for the Alabama Secretary of State’s office, which issued the more than 700 fines, told the Commission that it was more than enough time to conceal from the public the source of funds until after an election was over.

The Commission didn’t care.

Citing the fact that the handful of entities and candidates who appealed had “no intent to break the law,” and falling back — for the third time — on the fact that this is the first election cycle since the new filing deadlines were implemented, the commissioners voted to give the violators a pass. The laws in question were passed in 2015.

Secretary of State John Merrill said in December, when the Commission voted to give the second pass to violators, that their actions were actually rewriting the campaign finance laws implemented by the Alabama Legislature.

“This sends a terrible message that if you’re somebody or you know somebody, you have a way out of following the laws everyone else has to follow,” Merrill said then. “I’m just so terribly disappointed in this decision and I don’t know what effect it might have on people following this law. It can’t be good, I know that.”

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Deputy AG Brent Beal, who works with Merrill’s office, was back to argue against that imposing the fines on people and entities that file late was required by the law. That law states that the Secretary of State’s office shall impose the fines, leaving no room for interpretation.

And yet, the Commission continues to interpret.

“This is actually costing us money to send out these fines,” Beal told the Commission on Wednesday. “Each time we send one it goes out by certified mail. That’s $6 per letter.”

Merrill’s office provided APR with a list of candidates, PACs and businesses that violated the law — 774 in all for more than $137,000 in fines. Of that, just over $48,000 has been paid in by campaigns or PACs that chose not to challenge the Secretary of State’s fine. That leaves 549 fines outstanding.

The biggest violators of the law were Alabama Restaurant and Hospitality Association, and Hawk PAC, with 11 violations each, and AFL-CIO, with 10.

In another ruling on Wednesday, the Commission voted 3-1 to allow campaign donations to be used by candidates for childcare expenses.

The request for an opinion was filed by Jennifer Gray, who is running for state representative. Gray works from home and cares for her child during the day in the summer. That responsibility will prevent her from campaigning appropriately.

Merrill’s office opposed the request, saying it was too broad and could lead to abuse. The Commission disagreed, equating Gray’s need for childcare reimbursement — which would have to be documented and specific — to reimbursement for gas and general car maintenance — which is allowed under the current laws — that would also not be required if a candidate wasn’t running for office.

 

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