Lets say youre a resident of Pontiac and you want to know how your councilman, Everett Seay, has funded his elections for the last decade.
If you go to the Oakland County clerks office, heres what youll find: not enough of what you were looking for. Seay still owes the county 11 campaign finance reports documents state law says he must file to let voters know who helped put him in office. According to the county treasurers office, hes also paying off $2,500 in late filing fees.
Seay refused to return repeated calls from the Metro Times. Pontiac Mayor Walter Moore has been singled out in the press as an example of Michigans toothless campaign finance reporting system. County officials say Moore still owes two reports due in 1995 and 1996. Moores assistant Wilson Boykins says he has filed the mayors reports since 1997, and that whoever was doing the job before must have slacked.
"Evidently, things werent being done as they were supposed to be," he says. "I can only get things back on track and try to make sure that it doesnt happen again."
If a candidate is willing to be fined a maximum of $500 per missing report a slap on the wrist, say critics and maybe endure a bit of bad press, theres little further incentive to file. Efforts are under way to fix this problem by either strengthening or overhauling various aspects of the campaign finance law, but would-be reformers differ on whether legislation would be an effective way to fix the problem.
Looking at the reporting system, you might conclude that its not only toothless: Its also nearly blind.
Sizing the issue
It is possible to call the Secretary of States office or a county clerk and ask for a particular candidates record, but state and county officials interviewed recently by Metro Times were unable to say for certain how many reports were outstanding at either level of government.
Is it a big problem? Who knows?
"Although there apparently are no reliable figures kept anywhere on the magnitude of the problem, stories abound of candidates who continue to run for office despite reportedly owing outstanding fines for failing to submit campaign finance reports on time," says House legislative analyst Susan Ekstrom.
To further complicate matters, the statute requires that state and local campaign finance records be destroyed every five years. Because of that, Elections Division Deputy Director Glorietta Flakes says her office is unable to confirm the status of records reported missing for five or more years.
Legislation by state Rep. Scott Shackleton, R-Sault Ste. Marie, seeks to require that reports filed with the state and those filed with local officials by committees having raised more than $50,000 in an election cycle be kept for 15 years.
Under current law, candidates with two or more outstanding campaign finance reports that are more than 30 days late can be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to 90 days in jail. Anyone convicted of a misdemeanor under the law could also be kept from assuming public office or receiving pay for that office.
However, state officials interviewed for this article couldnt point to any convictions under the law.
Attorney Generals office spokesman Chris DeWitt says the office has neither the staff nor the resources to go after everyone who breaks the campaign finance law. DeWitt says the last time the office prosecuted those failing to file reports was in 1994 when roughly 20 people, including incumbents, were charged. He says cases against 19 defendants were dropped when they subsequently filed reports, and the remaining candidate could not be found.
The most common punishment for scofflaws is late filing fees, which state and county treasurers offices are charged with collecting, sometimes by taking candidates or officials to court or garnisheeing their wages for a maximum of $500 in late fees per report.
Secretary of States Compliance and Rules Director Anne Corgan says the last time her office assessed candidates civil penalties up to $1,000 per missing report was in 1995, involving the same batch of politicians whose cases were dropped by the Attorney Generals office. They included then-state Rep. Nelson Saunders, whom Corgan says was fined $7,000 in civil penalties and late fees.
"For the most part, the civil penalty is reserved for the most egregious cases," she says.
DeWitt says county prosecutors are responsible for going after anyone who doesnt file the required campaign finance reports in their counties. Wayne County prosecutors say they do just that. But in Oakland County, prosecuting officials say that its the states responsibility. DeWitt says if Oakland County isnt prosecuting its scofflaws, then those lawbreakers evidently havent had to fear prosecution.
State Rep. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, says although most candidates file campaign statements on time, inconsistent enforcement makes it too easy for others not to file, leaving their campaign finance records full of holes.
State Rep. Marc Shulman, R-West Bloomfield Twp., has a bill that would make candidates sign affidavits saying they dont owe reports or fines before they can run for office. Any candidate who lies on such an affidavit could be charged with perjury and face up to five years of incarceration, up to a $1,000 fine, or both.
Johnson says for candidates who repeatedly pay the $500 maximum late filing fee but never file reports, the fines become "the cost of doing business." Her bill would raise the maximum fee for each missing report to $5,000 for countywide candidates and $10,000 for those vying for statewide offices. Johnson says that should create more of an incentive for candidates to file, and for prosecutors to go after those who dont.
"This legislation has got some teeth in it," she says.
In their defense, some candidates and officials with late and missing reports point to extenuating circumstances.
For instance, state Sen. Joe Young Jr., D-Detroit, said that what seemed to be problems with missing reports were no more than a "documentation issue" that he was working out with the state. Subsequently, on May 11, state officials said Young had paid a debt that had kept him from dissolving his state representative campaign committee in 1994, and those reports and any subsequent late filing fees were forgiven.
Another problem, some say, is that state elections officials require that committees with outstanding campaign statements or debts remain active and continue filing statements until those issues are resolved.
Take the case of Ypsilanti attorney Thomas Manchester, treasurer and founder of a committee called Knowledge is Democracys Safeguard. Manchester says KIDS was founded in 1990 by a group seeking to equalize educational opportunities statewide, but the group was never able to garner enough signatures to put its ballot question to voters.
KIDS disbanded in 1993, nearly $20,000 in debt. Manchester says at first he didnt realize he would have to keep filing for the nonexistent committee, which has cost him roughly $1,600 in late fees.
"I dont blame the state for my paying late fees," Manchester says. "I wasnt careful enough. Im a lawyer. I should know better. What I do blame them for is making us keep the committee open. It just doesnt make sense."
West Bloomfield Republican Debbie Schlussel, who opposed Shulman in last years August primary, says toughening the campaign finance law could punish candidates, particularly amateurs and those who arent wealthy, for honest mistakes. Schlussel, who disputes state records regarding the number of reports her committee has turned in late, says, "My campaign was me and volunteers. Only rich people can afford these fines and run these expensive campaigns and get all of their reports in on time."
Flakes says the elections bureau mails reminders to committees before the due dates of major reports including annual, pre- and post-primary and election reports, so ignorance is no excuse. As Johnson pointed out, "If they never file, you dont know if theyve raised $50,000!"
Not everyone believes legislation is the route to reform.
Karen Holcomb-Merrill, executive director of Common Cause in Michigan, expressed doubt that incumbents, who get the bulk of special interest money under the current system, will make significant changes.
"Comprehensive changes make them nervous. They dont know how its going to affect them," she says.
In 1997, lawmakers from both houses formed a bipartisan committee on campaign finance reform. But according to House staff, the committee stopped meeting in 1998 without having taken any action.
Common Cause in Michigan has joined the League of Women Voters in putting together a comprehensive campaign finance reform package to appear on the Michigan ballot as early as the year 2000.
The ballot proposal, which mirrors measures recently passed in other states, calls for publicly funded campaigns to sharply reduce the influence of special interests and individual wealthy contributors.
It would also create an independent commission to oversee the campaign finance law, rather than the elected secretary of state doing so. Holcomb-Merrill says the ballot measure also might overlap with currently proposed legislation to increase late fees and other penalties and prevent campaign scofflaws from taking office or getting paid with tax dollars.
"Michigan needs to adopt comprehensive campaign finance reform instead of just tinkering with the law, which is what legislators are inclined to do," Holcomb-Merrill says.