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Late filing fees for most candidates
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A warning to elusive campaign filers: Georgia wants its money. The state’s campaign finance commission is enforcing penalties for anyone who was required to report election finances since 2011 for either filing reports late or not at all.

So far, the Georgia Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission website listed 38 filers from the Conyers area who have outstanding fees that have not been paid. Most of the filers owe less than $500 in fees.

About a third of the late or non-filers are current elected officials.

The penalties have hit everyone from Commissioner JaNice Van Ness and current Superior Court Judge David Irwin to the entire Conyers city council. Five board members from the Rockdale County Public Schools Board of Education — except board member Jean Yontz — have also been penalized with late fees.

Several of the filers are also running in various races at the local and state level this year. That list includes county Commission Chair candidate Brian Jenkins, Post 1 Commissioner challenger Tom Harrison and Sheriff candidate Donald Ferguson. Ed Conway, who recently dropped out of the Commission Chair race, also owes.

Toney Collins, Sherri Washington and Rodney Upton, who are all campaigning in state House races, have also been listed as late filers.

In April, the commission issued a motion reaffirming penalties for violations to Georgia’s campaign finance act. The fines are for a number of reports — campaign contribution, personal finance disclosure forms and lobbyist forms — that candidates, political action committees and lobbyists are required to file in order to engage in fair and transparent elections.

Campaign Finance Commission Executive Secretary Holly LaBerge did not wish to comment further than to say that the Commission office is working as quickly as possible to process all late fees, payments and hardship requests.

Candidates, committees and public officers could potentially face up to $1,375 in fines for campaign contribution and personal finance disclosure reports.

After a five day grace period, a $125 late fee is charged for a report not filed or filed late up to 14 days. By day 44, the individual is fined $250. Past 45 days, the late fee jumps to $1000.

The fees apply to individuals and groups who were eligible to file from January 1, 2011 to April 2012.

Some filers cite a lack of communication from the commission to individuals who want to campaign about types of forms to file and their respective deadlines.

Sherri Washington said she wasn’t aware that she needed to file a final disclosure form for her last campaign and recently learned of the fees.

“I thought once your campaign was over, it was over,” she said.

Tom Harrison, a first time campaigner, agreed.

“I failed to understand that if I did not take contributions during the non-election year, I was still required to file a report stating the fact that I did not take contributions.”

Both Washington and Harrison said that they both intend to pay their fines.

Rodney Upton went in person to file his financial and contribution disclosure forms for this year’s campaign to avoid penalties, but was unaware of a 2009 financial disclosure form that generated a penalty despite not running for office. He plans to contact the commission.

Board of education member Don McKinney did not know about his penalty fees, and was unsure of who to contact to clear up the problem. He said in the past, he was given a hard copy of disclosure reports that he sent up to the board of elections office off Parker Road.

As of this publication, the local number for the office listed on the website goes directly to voicemail. The only other way to contact the office is through a toll-free number listed on the website or the online submission form.

Others were aware of the late fees, and have been working to remedy the situation with the commission office.

Board of education member Jim McBrayer filed a hardship appeal, but was told Friday morning that a backlog in files caused his appeal to be put on hold. McBrayer did say that the commission plans to review his case.

Board member Brad Smith said that he filed all the required paperwork on time, but had been contacting the commission office since late March as to why his name was on the penalty list.

“They were not able to explain why I am being assessed a penalty and they were going to look into it,” he said. He plans to follow up to get his name removed.

Darlene Hotchkiss said that a glitch in the commission office website cause her to have to refile on July 15 of last year, which she said the commission acknowledged would excuse her from a penalty fee. Yet her name and the fines still reside in the system.

BOE chair Wales Barksdale said that he paid an outstanding fine two weeks ago, despite his name still being listed as a late or non-filer.

JaNice Van Ness said that she has made numerous attempts to resolve the issue, but has yet to receive word from the commission office. She blames severe staffing problems and budget cuts.

“The whole thing has consistently fallen through the cracks.  No one really knows what is going on,” she said.

Van Ness may have a point. LaBerge stressed that right now there are only five people working in the office trying to process over 9,000 reports from across the state.

The intent of the ethics reform act that was passed and enacted in 2011, was supposed to provide better transparency of Georgia elections. More than a year later, it seems to be giving candidates and public officials, as well as the commission itself headaches.

The Georgia legislature voted to overhaul the state’s ethics policies and governing board, but failed to equip the campaign commission office with the funding and staff needed to run the agency.

And with continued state austerity cuts, the commission has had to deal with a reduced staff and an increased workload, which has created what some may call poor oversight of the late and non-filer fee process.

For fiscal year 2013, the state has requested an additional $58,000 to bump up the campaign commission’s budget to a little over $1.1 million.

The non-partisan Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform noted that two bills were currently sitting in the House and Senate that once again reform the ethics code in Georgia. House Bill 1105 and Senate Bill 391 are somewhat similar in their goal of streamlining ethics laws and the role of the campaign commission office.

Both bills want to change the name of the commission office from the longer Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. HB 1105 would restore the name back to the original State Ethics Commission, while SB 391 opts for a more citizen-friendly State Accountability Commission.

The house ethics bill would restore the campaign finance commission’s authority to interpret and apply laws and rules governing campaign finance and lobbyist investigations. And the senate bill would establish requirements for PAC contribution and expense disclosures.

While the bills look promising to ethics reform advocacy and watchdog groups, the bills are still sitting in the legislature with no intent to be moved through either body.