Lobbyists, candidates get little reprieve from $3.5M in late fees
By JIM WALLS
April 11, 2012 — Dozens of Georgia lobbyists and political candidates may get relief from fines assessed for filing their financial disclosures late. Thousands more, the state Campaign Finance Commission decided today, will get no such reprieve.
Georgia lawmakers raised late fees dramatically – up to $1,375 for candidates and $11,275 for lobbyists — as part of an ethics reform package that took effect in January 2011. Protests began accumulating almost immediately, as filers complained that glitches in the state’s online filing system or other extenuating circumstances kept them from getting reports in on time.
One of the takeaways from today’s decision: The commission, since losing the power to make its own rules in 2009, really doesn’t have much flexibility to mitigate penalties for late filings.
“This is certainly a scenario where rulemaking authority would be beneficial to the commission,” chairman Kevin Abernethy said.
The commission today authorized executive secretary Holly LaBerge to decide how to handle about 20 requests for hardship waivers, most of which cited serious medical conditions. Fee waivers, by law, may also be granted in some cases if the filer had no campaign contributions or spending to report.
Members of the commission chewed over but eventually rejected various suggestions to soften the blow of the new, stiffer late fees. Without rulemaking authority, the commission’s legal advisors said, it could not modify penalties for late disclosures.
Elected officials and political candidates, due to state budget cuts, will only have to pay a single $125 fee for late filings. Higher fees would only kick in if the violator had been notified by certified mail, and the commission hasn’t had the money in its budget to send those notices.
Lobbyists, though, enjoy no such protection. They’re notified by email amost instantaneously if they owe a late fee, and there’s no requirement for notice by certified mail.
State law charges lobbyists a $275 fee for filing a disclosure late, $1,000 more if it’s more than a week late and $10,000 on top of that if it’s more than three weeks late during the annual legislative session.
So, Abernethy noted, “as unpleasant as it is,” the commission agreed to assess the escalating late fees for lobbyists “as we are required to do by the Georgia Campaign Finance Act.”
Through March 1, officials said, lobbyists owed $2.3 million for filing 718 late reports. That’s roughly double the commission’s annual budget, but the agency could only keep about $18,000 of that amount; the remainder would go to the state treasury.
About 4,000 political candidates owe an additional $1.25 million under the new system of late fees.
A commission analysis shows most of those violators were running for mayor or city council seats — positions that were only required to file disclosures with local election officials before 2011.
Some 519 filers have paid $117,000 in late fees under the new law, LaBerge said, while 323 others requested waivers.
Countless more requests are expected now that the commission has clarified exactly what waivers may be considered, said Marcia Rubensohn, a lobbyist for the Georgia Municipal Association. She said the GMA had asked members to stop filing waiver requests until the issue was settled.