Candidates for political office in Oklahoma could soon be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in penalties for failing to file campaign contribution and expenditure reports as required by state law.
Lee Slater, executive director of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, said work will begin this summer to chip away at a two-year backlog of candidates and political action committees that have not kept up with the required reporting schedule.
As of Friday, two dozen candidates for political office stretching back as far as 2008 had not filed their latest quarterly report, due April 30, but dozens of others filed their reports days or weeks late.
The list of political action committees that are behind schedule is even longer.
Slater said the commission can charge each candidate or committee $100 per day for each day it is late filing its reports, with a total maximum penalty of $1,000 each.
“It's something that the law anticipates and our rules require, and we're gonna do it,” he said.
Most names on the delinquent list are candidates who ran small-budget campaigns one time and then dropped out of the political arena.
Others, however, carry years of experience.
Lost in inactivity?
Former House Speaker Lance Cargill, who now works as a Republican political consultant in Harrah, was among several that scrambled Friday to get their reports filed after The Oklahoman called.
Cargill, who last campaigned in 2008, said he has been filing quarterly reports but that the Ethics Commission has not been receiving them.
Though he has not accepted any contributions or made any expenditure for several years, the law requires all candidates and political action committees to file a quarterly “Statement of Inactivity” until a report is filed to close the campaign out.
“I don't know why that would be — perhaps there's a problem with the Internet or something,” Cargill said.
But Debbie Maddox, general counsel for the Ethics Commission, said she didn't buy that.
Maddox said filing a contributions and expenditures report can take some time, but that filing a statement of inactivity is just a matter of logging onto the site and clicking a few buttons. Reports also can be faxed, mailed or emailed.
“To say that someone submitted a report and we don't have it — no, we don't hear that question at all,” Maddox said. “But do we get questions all the time? Yes.”
In addition to posting the list of delinquent accounts, the commission also mails letters to the candidates and committees reminding them of their responsibility, Maddox said.
Ross Smith, who last summer ran for House District 37 but was defeated in the Democratic primary, said the reporting system can be complicated and overwhelming for a first-time candidate.
Smith, who owns a construction company and did not hire a campaign staff for his run, said he's been unable to get assistance from the Ethics Commission. He has not closed his campaign account, and his last quarterly report was filed in June 2012.
“You really don't have any insight on what to do or how to do it because everybody expects you to know everything,” Smith said. “If you're trying to do it on your own, and only on your own, it's very difficult.”
Rick Agent, who in November lost his bid for the House District 2 seat, said he only recently realized he had reporting obligations beyond the campaign.
“I guess I thought when I lost that there wasn't anything else to do,” he said.
‘A lot of details'
Most prominent candidates for statewide office learn about the reporting requirements either from their campaign manager or from party representatives, said Trevor Worthen, a Republican political consultant based in Oklahoma City.
Candidates are given a calendar of reporting deadlines when they file for office, but many of them rely on their spouses or close friends to help manage the details of their campaigns, he said.
Though the reporting process is important, it can also be confusing, he said.
“In an active campaign there area lot of moving parts and a lot of details that you have to pay attention to,” he said. “My recommendation is always have a professional do this, because a volunteer is always inevitably going to miss something.”
Slater, who assumed his the Ethics Commission post full-time May 1, said he does not know exactly how many candidates have been delinquent over the previous two years nor would he guess how many total penalties will be assessed.
Since the candidates are guaranteed a right to protest, he said, the commission is looking to hire a hearing officer before it starts to mail out its penalty assessments.
In an active campaign there area lot of moving parts and a lot of details that you have to pay attention to. My recommendation is always have a professional do this, because a volunteer is always inevitably going to miss something.”