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R.I. can’t collect $6.1M in unpaid campaign fines. What’s BOE going to do about it?


R.I. can’t collect $6.1M in unpaid campaign fines. What’s BOE going to do about it?

Oct 04, 2023 | 3:17 pm ET
By Nancy Lavin
R.I. can’t collect $6.1M in unpaid campaign fines. What’s BOE going to do about it?
Ric Thornton, director of campaign finance for the Rhode Island Board of Elections, has proposed capping fines and closing campaign finance accounts so fees don’t keep accruing. (Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

More than two decades have passed since former State Sen. Patrick T. McDonald last ran for office. But the Narragansett Democrat, who served in the State House from 1996 to 2002, never closed his campaign finance account with the Rhode Island Board of Elections (BOE).

Which means he’s been racking up fees on 21 years of missed finance reporting deadlines, to the tune of more than $613,000 as of September, according to information obtained by Rhode Island Current. To be fair, McDonald has been otherwise occupied, sentenced to 4.5 years in prison after being convicted in 2014 of embezzling money from his law practice clients.

McDonald, who holds the dubious distinction of most outstanding debt on campaign finance violations, may never pay the full amount he owes. But something would be better than nothing.

Top 10 campaign finance scofflaws (as of September)

Patrick T. McDonald: $613,656

Michael James Rollins: $565,730

John A. Celona: $542,773

David J. DeAngelis: $366,442

Mark A. Plympton: $365,095

Colette J. Matarese: $261,737

Jonathan P. Scott: $261,737

James W. Quinlan: $243,116

Robert E. Rainville: $233,793

James J. Black Jr.: $233,768

Which is why the BOE is considering reducing the penalties for campaign finance violations. Ric Thornton, the board’s campaign finance director, pitched the regulation change at the board’s meeting on Tuesday.

“This regulation would go a long way of bringing that top tier of debt down to a proportional level that would make it collectible,” Thornton told the board.

Handful of violators owe $5.7 million

While the election agency has made significant strides in tracking and collecting money from violators in recent years, a few top offenders – like McDonald – remain unreachable. Indeed, 93% of the $6.1 million in unpaid financial penalties for late or missing campaign reports come from just 15% of the offenders, according to Thornton.

Just behind McDonald, with nearly $566,000 in unpaid fines for campaign finance violations is Michael James Rollins. The North Providence Democrat, who ran unsuccessfully for the town council in 2004 and then lost a state senate bid in 2012, has refused to file required reports in protest amid ongoing disputes with the elections board, the Associated Press previously reported.

Rounding out the top three is the infamous former state Sen. John Celona, who owes more than $542,000. The North Providence Democrat, who stepped down in 2004, was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for federal bribery charges.

And their fines just keep growing, with $2 added for every day those reports are still missing. After the BOE filed a complaint against McDonald in Providence County Superior Court  in 2004, he was ordered to pay just shy of $10,000 in monthly payments. Now, his debt is 60 times more thanks to accruing late fees.

The proposed rule change – now open for public comment – would cap fines at a lower amount while letting the elections board close campaign finance accounts so fees don’t keep accruing. 

The amount of the penalty would depend on the type of offense: A candidate who opened an account but never declared candidacy or made it on the ballot would be fined up to $500 per delinquent report for the two-year period of the election cycle. Meanwhile, candidates who made it on the ballot but didn’t turn in one or more reports within the election cycle could be fined up to $1,000 per missing report for two election cycles, a maximum of four years. Any money left in their accounts would also be used to pay off debt.

Candidates who run for office, turn in all their reports but fail to turn in the final paperwork to close out their accounts would also be fined no more than $1,000 per report for up to two election cycles. 

“I don’t expect debt will ever go away for any reporting period,” Thornton said. “There will be a universe of candidates that file late. But I believe this will help us get a much better handle on it.”

I don't expect debt will ever go away for any reporting period. There will be a universe of candidates that file late. But I believe this will help us get a much better handle on it.

– Ric Thornton, Rhode Island Board of Elections campaign finance director

Not just because many of the top offenders simply don’t have the money to pay what they owe. Charging the full amount also risks violating the U.S. Constitution under the . Eighth Amendment, which limits the government’s ability to impose “excessive fines.”

Exactly what constitutes an excessive, versus appropriate, financial penalty is not very clear.

“Courts never make this simple,” said Ray Marcaccio, the board’s legal counsel, referencing cases in which courts have upheld fines as appropriate, and others in which they have been shot down. “They give discretion to the enforcement agency.”

But, Marcaccio acknowledged, some of the Rhode Island offenders’ debt totals – three of which top half a million dollars apiece – might pose a legal problem to try and collect. 

It’s hardly the state elections agency’s first attempt to cut down on campaign finance penalties. Thornton rattled off a 20-year history of efforts to fix the problem of ballooning debts. 

A few, like a one-time amnesty program in 2003 that waived the daily late fees, worked, as did referring particularly problematic cases to the attorney general’s office or state Superior Court.

But various legislative attempts that would cap fines, and in some versions, prevent candidates from running for office or raising money until they pay their debt, all “went nowhere,” according to Thornton.

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, pointed to opposition by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island on past bill proposals. The ACLU contested prohibiting people from running for office, even if they owed money for campaign finance violations.

And without a big scandal like when former Speaker Gordon Fox was sent to federal prison in 2015 for campaign finance violations, it’s hard to drum up much interest during a hectic legislative session.

Typically momentum for strengthening campaign finance laws comes after some sort of campaign finance scandal,” Marion said. “This is the BOE trying to be a better beat cop on a daily basis.”

Which is why the board is now taking a different approach. Existing state statute allows the BOE to modify fines anyway, so the regulation change would just codify that and lay out a process with set fines based on types of offenses, Thornton said. 

The elections board will reconsider and vote on the proposed regulations after a 30-day public comment period.

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