Elections

South Florida politicians repeatedly fined for failing to disclose donors on time

Florida’s Capitol building
Florida’s Capitol building Tampa Bay Times

State Sen. Dwight Bullard is a busy man. He’s a politician, teacher, newly minted uncle and chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.

“In the midst of all the public service I’m attempting to do, there are things that are put on the back burner,” Bullard said.

Filing campaign finance reports on time is one of Bullard’s items on the back burner: He’s been fined seven times, totaling $7,000, for filing campaign finance reports late since declaring his current state Senate candidacy in 2013. The next deadline to file is Friday.

Bullard is the worst offender among Miami-Dade and Broward state Senate and House candidates running for office in 2016, but he is hardly alone: Thirty-one candidates for the Legislature have been fined for missing campaign finance reporting deadlines in this election cycle. The offenders include 24 Democrats, six Republicans and one no-party candidate.

“Filing a report is not brain surgery,” said Maribel Balbin, former president of the Miami-Dade League of Women Voters. “I was not aware that it was that big of a number. As a voter ... I would find it discouraging if someone makes the same mistake over and over again.”

The penalties this election cycle range from a paltry $7.50 to a $5,000 fine levied by the Florida Elections Commission against Bullard in May, depending on how large the unreported amount is. Under state law, candidates must disclose donors to their campaigns and the amount of the contributions on certain dates predetermined by the state. It’s the only way the public can find out who is donating to whose campaign.

The penalties start small, typically $50 per day for a past due for a missing campaign finance report, or even smaller if the amount raised is tiny. But the state can impose additional fines for repeat offenders. Campaign finance reports are due every week in the run-up to an election. Earlier in the cycle they are due once a month.

Balbin says that $50 is a fair sum for a candidate to pay, but that a late payment “would be reflective of how you would run your office” once in Tallahassee.

“Small as it may be [filing on time] is still an important requirement of the campaign,” Belbin said, adding that it’s “worrisome” that so many local campaigns have failed to file documents on time.

Most of the fines are going to novice candidates in their first run for office, but a few veteran politicians besides Bullard have also been penalized. Sitting Republican state Sens. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla of Miami and Anitere Flores of Miami were each fined $50, while incumbent Democratic Sen. Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens was fined twice, totaling $150. Flores and Braynon paid their fines, but Diaz de la Portilla’s fine is still outstanding after his campaign treasurer attempted to pay it. State law says candidates must pay fines with personal funds.

Republican state Rep. Mike Bileca of Miami accrued the second-largest fine behind Bullard: $1,150 for filing his report due July 1 on July 6. State records show he has paid the fine.

Democrat Mary Estime-Irvin of North Miami, running for state House in District 107, has the most fines of any newcomer on the ballot. She has been fined $1,269.66 for seven separate campaign violations and state records show she has not paid any fines. She did not return a call for comment.

Bullard said it’s easy to miss deadlines and inadvertently make mistakes that result in campaign violations. He says his violations were due to months when he didn’t fundraise and he filed a blank report instead of a waiver indicating he didn’t raise money.

“I didn’t know the procedures for filing without expenditures,” said Bullard, who has been in the Senate since 2012. “There’s a special way that I wasn’t privy to at the time. It was a computer misunderstanding on my part.”

The state did not buy that explanation when it issued the fine against Bullard in May. The Florida Division of Elections said that it sent nine letters to Bullard and that his violations were “willful.”

“Respondent committed the acts while knowing that, or showing reckless disregard for whether, the acts were prohibited,” the state order said.

“I am a procrastinator, guilty as charged,” Bullard said at a candidate forum on Aug. 1. “I am guilty of filing my campaign paperwork late, multiple times. Sometimes I go a day over and guess what that’s called? It is called a campaign violation.”

Most cases of missing campaign-finance reports are handled by the Division of Elections. A fine is levied and the candidate pays it off. But the Florida Elections Commission gets involved when politicians appeal or violations reach a certain threshold, and it renders a final decision.

“We get a judgment and the judgment is recorded as a lien on real property,” elections commission Executive Director Amy Toman said. “After 30 days we do bring an enforcement process in circuit court.”

Bullard’s $5,000 fine from the Florida Elections Commission was announced in May, and he has yet to pay it. On Tuesday, the elections commission slapped Bullard with another $2,000 fine for two more campaign finance violations, bringing his total fines to at least $7,000 in this election cycle.

It is unclear whether the state has levied liens against Bullard.

“You’ll get a notice for something and you sort of forget about it in the grand scheme of things,” Bullard said. “Other things can come up: Session deadlines come up, committee meetings come up, school year comes up, senior prom comes up, life circumstances end up overshadowing things.”

State House and Senate Candidate Fines — 2016 Election Cycle as of Aug. 15

Name

Party

Office

Fines since start of campaign

Total amount fined

Paid?

Dwight Bullard

D

Senate

7

$7,000

No

Mary Estime-Irvin

D

House

7

$1,269.66

No

Michael Bileca

R

House

2

$1,200

Yes

Gary Farmer

D

Senate

1

$650

No

Oscar Ganem

R

House

2

$430

No

Roxanne Valies

D

House

7

$414.09

Partial

Holly Raschein

R

House

1

$400

Yes

Dan Horton

D

House

2

$392.8

Partial

Roy Hardemon

D

House

3

$387.5

No

Kionne McGhee

D

House

4

$375

Partial

Carlos Trujillo

R

House

1

$349.01

Yes

Perry Thurston Jr.

D

Senate

1

$312.39

Yes

Mercedes Christian

NPA

Senate

1

$304

No

Joe Geller

D

House

3

$250

Yes

Taj Collie-Echoles

D

House

2

$200

Partial

Barbara Watson

D

House

4

$175

Yes

Oscar Braynon

D

Senate

2

$150

Yes

Waldo Faura-Morales

D

House

2

$200

Partial

Alberto Santana

D

House

1

$100

Yes

Henry Patel

D

House

1

$100

Yes

Moise Dugé

D

House

1

$100

No

Whitney Rawls

D

House

2

$100

No

Anitere Flores

R

Senate

1

$50

Yes

Daphne Campbell

D

Senate

1

$50

Yes

Miguel Diaz de la Portilla

R

Senate

1

$50

No

Francesca Menes

D

House

1

$50

Yes

Rick Stark

D

House

1

$50

Yes

Ivette Gonzalez Petkovich

D

House

1

$50

Yes

Katie Edwards

D

House

1

$50

Yes

Anika Omphroy

D

House

1

$50

No

Anabella Grohoski Peralta

D

Senate

1

$10

No

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