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Opinion | The oddly “unique” case of Marilyn Lands’ campaign finance fines

There was nothing unique about Marilyn Lands’ campaign finance reporting mistakes. There was plenty unique about her.

Rep. Marilyn Lands
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There was a rare occurrence in Montgomery last week – a candidate for public office was held accountable over missing filing deadlines for reporting campaign donations. And no breaks were given. 

You might not know this but that almost never happens. 

The Alabama Secretary of State is responsible for levying the fines, and they routinely give breaks or don’t enforce the fines. And the Alabama Ethics Commission, which hears appeals from candidates, routinely goes along with the suggestions from the SOS office. 

I’ve watched a lot of Ethics Committee meetings over the years and I don’t recall a single instance in which a candidate was hit with fines for every single violation and the SOS office didn’t hand out a break. 

I’m not alone. After talking with several attorneys who routinely represent candidates from both parties at these hearings, none of them could remember the last time it happened, either. If it ever has. 

Because the common practice has been to give candidates a break, particularly when it’s obvious that the candidate wasn’t attempting to deceive anyone or hide donations or purposefully violate reporting laws. 

To highlight that fact, during last week’s Ethics Commission meeting, 14 of the 15 candidates facing fines for missing filing deadlines had at least some of those fines dismissed. Many of them had all of the fines dismissed. 

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But not Marilyn Lands. 

No sir. Lands’ violations were so egregious, so flagrant, so severe that the Secretary of State’s Office, led by attorney and former Republican House Rules Committee chairman Mike Jones, determined that Lands should be hit with the maximum fines allowed. 

What made Lands’ violations so egregious?

Well, that’s where our story gets a bit weird. Because other than one missed deadline being for a relatively large amount of money for a state House race, nothing distinguishes Lands’ case. 

The facts are these: Lands, who once worked as the campaign chairman for Republican Mike Ball, ran for the House District 10 seat as a Democrat, and she wiped the floor with her ALGOP challenger. Running on a platform of abortion rights and sanity, Lands became a national star after flipping the suburban Huntsville district that voted for Trump in 2020. 

As her campaign entered the final stretch, however, and donations were flooding in, Christine Starnes, who was responsible for filing Lands’ campaign finance reports, forgot to enter daily reports. Daily reports are required in the final week of an election when donations and expenditures combined total more than $5,000 in a 24-hour period. 

Starnes hit the other filing deadlines, including the weekly filings over the last few weeks. And she reported all of the donations and expenditures that should have gone into the daily reports in a weekly report that was filed prior to the Tuesday special election in late March. So, nothing was hidden and the information was made public well before the election. And Starnes reported the mistakes herself. 

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Didn’t matter. 

For the five days in which it failed to file the required daily reports, Lands’ campaign was fined the max amount possible – $4,500. 

Now, look, I’m all for upholding the laws and fining candidates who fail to file their campaign finance reports. In fact, I think failing to issue those fines and routinely allowing candidates to skirt those laws is a huge failure of oversight that should outrage every citizen. Those filings are how we determine who’s buying our elected officials. 

So, I like that the SOS office and Ethics Commission finally followed the laws they’re supposed to follow. (Which is quite a sentence if you think about it.) But on the other hand, that’s not the routine practice. That’s not how business is typically conducted. 

After the meeting, Jones told the Alabama Reflector that the typical approach is to drop the fines for candidates that made simple mistakes or self-reported the violations. Half of the candidates facing fines last week had theirs completely dismissed. 

But Lands’ case was “unique,” Jones told the Reflector. When asked how so, he said something about the amounts being too great, because one day Lands’ campaign took in more than $30,000. 

Pfft. Lands’ campaign received just short of $42,000 in donations for the entire final week. Much of that came in the form of small donations from donors all over the country. The big money day was March 18, a Monday, when Lands’ campaign tallied up the donations from the weekend. The rest of the week, only by adding the expenditures – which were also mundane and not worth hiding – did the campaign manage to exceed the $5,000 daily reporting limit. 

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None of that is unique. 

The fact is Lands’ win was Alabama’s first Democratic gain in about 15 years. It came in an area that will be vitally important in the state in the coming years, and the win came about because of issues that will be vitally important in several upcoming elections and all over the country. Lands embarrassed ALGOP, painted a road map for other candidates to succeed, managed to raise more than any House Democrat in years and was a national star. 

So, yeah, I think I know what made her case so unique.

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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