Rep. Al Green raised more than $1.7 million to fund three election bids from 2004 to 2008, but his campaign neglected to report more than a year and a half's worth of its transactions to the Federal Election Commission.
The nine missing campaign finance reports — detailing who gave the Texas Democrat a quarter of his money during these years — were filed only after the FEC sent letters threatening to audit and fine the campaign.
While Green has failed to file campaign disclosure reports more times than any current lawmaker, he is not the only offender. At least 680 campaigns have failed to file more than 900 required filings total since 2000, according to a Roll Call study of campaign finance records. As a result, the FEC has fined these campaigns more than $2 million during the past decade.
“I’m not proud of this,” Green said in response to the study. “I regret that it has happened. I apologize for it and I will continue to do better going forward.”
Green paid more than $40,000 in fines to the FEC, and most of his campaign’s filing irregularities ended after 2008, when, he said, he “hired an independent professional” to help him with his campaign finance reporting.
Campaign watchdogs have little sympathy for candidates who neglect to file their reports on time. “There’s no excuse for it,” said Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center who works on election law issues.
“Refusing to file a report is blatant noncompliance, and it should be punished. How can the public trust these individuals to make huge budgetary decisions affecting public policy if they can’t manage to file a fairly simple campaign finance disclosure report?”
No party can claim superiority when it comes to filing FEC reports. Democratic candidates have missed 447 filings since 2000, resulting in more than $958,000 in fines, while Republican candidates failed to file 449 reports and were penalized just more than $1 million. Third-party candidates missed another 37 filings, resulting in more than $53,000 in penalties.
The fines imposed by the FEC are often based on a percentage of a candidate’s receipts and sometimes can be mitigated by circumstances. This explains why Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) was penalized only $900 for skipping five reports, while Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) received $14,000 in fines for missing the same number of reports from 2000 to 2004.
“The late filings were the result of a software failure,” said Ashley Nagaoka, spokeswoman for Hanabusa. “The FEC acknowledged the error and the campaign’s accountant paid the fine.”
A Conyers spokeswoman said in an e-mail: “When he first became aware that these reports had not been filed he directed the campaign to make changes. They filed the missing paperwork immediately and in June 2007 the FEC authorized the termination of Friends of John Conyers.” Conyers created a new campaign committee with a new treasurer and has not failed to file since, she said.
Setting fines as a percentage of the total raised means Members of Congress who raise large amounts of money pay the stiffest fines when they fail to file. Some of the biggest fines were levied against campaigns that failed to file 48-hour reports detailing contributors who gave them $1,000 or more in donations.
The campaign of Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) was fined $38,000 for missing two 48-hour reports in 2006, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) was penalized $33,000 for missing a 48-hour report in 2004.
“The FEC found that the campaign did not violate any laws other than failing to comply with certain record-keeping and disbursement rules,” said Whitney Phillips, Lieberman’s press secretary. “This was the only time in 40 years that his campaign has been fined. It is critical to note that the FEC found that Sen. Lieberman did not engage in any wrongdoing in connection with alleged campaign violations.”
The list of candidates who missed filings reads like a political graveyard of campaigns past and present. Even President Barack Obama was fined $11,000 after his 2004 Senate campaign failed to file a 48-hour report.
Other sitting lawmakers who missed more than one filing include Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who was fined less than $4,000 for missing two filings in 2004 and 2005, and Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco (R-Texas), who was fined less than $3,000 for missing two filings in 2006 and 2008.
Groups advocating compliance say the central issue when reports go unfiled is that the public’s right to know who was funding these candidates is impaired.
This lack of transparency goes beyond candidates to some of the groups funding their campaigns. More than 1,000 forms were not filed on time by party committees and corporate, union, and other special interest political action committees during the past decade, resulting in more than $1.5 million in fines.
The amount unreported during these periods is substantial. These campaigns and PACs raised more than $1 billion combined in the cycles during which they failed at least once to file a form.
“Congress and the courts have collectively determined that the public has a right to know how candidates are raising and spending money,” Ryan said. “It’s important to voters via journalists to have that information to make informed decisions on Election Day.”
Some of the campaigns that are bad at filing their required reports are also bad at paying fines. Candidates failing to file currently owe more than $470,000 to the FEC, with Republican campaigns owing $248,000 and Democratic ones owing $210,000.