Elections panel approves legislative package

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Michael Peltier of the News Service of Florida reports that candidates would need to pay unpaid elections fines before their names go on the ballot under a proposal approved Tuesday by the Florida Elections Commission as it tries to recoup $1.4 million in unpaid penalties from political candidates.

Meeting by conference call, the commission also called for boosting penalties for judicial candidates who breech campaign laws. Both proposals were submitted last year, but lawmakers chose not to bring them up.

The two proposals were the only ones approved by the board, which reviewed six proposals brought to it by elections commission Executive Director Rosanna Catalano in preparation for the 2012 session that begins in January.

The unpaid fines proposal would prevent candidates from collecting contributions or spending money on campaigns until their past unpaid fines were taken care of. In a unanimous vote, the commission said lawmakers need to put more teeth in the laws to get the attention of those who refuse to pay, even after they are fined.

“It should be something that happens before you are even able to run,” said Commissioner Alia Faraj-Johnson. “You can’t start your campaign until you have paid your fines.”

Currently, the commission can place a lien on property for unpaid fines for up to 20 years. After that, the lien expires. The seeming lack of consequences has led many a political candidate or party official to go years without paying.

In May, the commission released a list of 184 cases with fines totaling nearly $1.4 million. Many of those have already been written off by the state. The vast majority of the unpaid fines are for $5,000 or less, but there are also a handful of large payments outstanding.

Ted Brabham, a former chairman of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party, owes more than a third of the total amount, more than $468,000 — the result of a 1996 campaign violation.

Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor owes $82,017, stemming from a 1999 case that included 206 counts against him. Miguel Aguirre, a candidate for mayor of Hialeah Gardens, owes $102,082.74 after a 72-count case against him from 2001.

The commission has sent 60 of the 184 cases to the Department of Management Services, which contracts with private collection agencies to recoup the money. Board members said upping the ante may get more past-due politicos to pay up.

“(The penalty) should be a serious enough consequence that prompts them to pay their penalties or fines,” Faraj-Johnson said. “It’s sort of like a bank not loaning you if you still owe them money.”

Commissioners also approved a proposal to boost fines to up to $1,000 per incident for judicial candidates who violate campaign law. The current law caps fines at $1,000 regardless of the number of violations.

On Tuesday, commissioners unanimously rejected other proposals brought to them by Catalano including one that required candidates making formal challenges to do so before the Department of Administrative Hearings. Current law allows candidates to choose between DOAH and having a formal hearing before the commission itself.

Another rejected proposal would have allowed election staff to advertise in local newspapers the names of those who had unpaid fines against them. That also was unanimously rejected.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.