N.H. campaign finance lapses go unnoticed – Concord Monitor

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In plain clothes, the campaign finance activists and residents stood out among the suited lobbyists in the Legislative Office Building last week.

One by one, they voiced support for a bill that would bar lawmakers from accepting campaign donations from lobbyists and block legislators from becoming registered lobbyists immediately after leaving office.

“I am generally disillusioned by the political process at all levels,” Ryan Fowler of Exeter told the House Legislative Administration Committee. “I believe this bill is very common sense and is a safeguard for our representative democracy.”

It’s not yet clear what the committee will do with the bill. But before lawmakers and activists seek to put more regulations in place, a recent report shows they could be better served focusing on enforcing the ones that already exist.

The Center for Public Integrity found campaign finance violations in New Hampshire can go largely unnoticed.

While the attorney general has the ability to independently review campaign finance records, the center report found, it “rarely does so unless a complaint is lodged.”

The center cited a 2013 biennial state report that showed the attorney general’s office regularly reviewed complaints regarding election violations and voter fraud, but investigated just one complaint out of 40 that dealt with campaign finance.

The center’s review of campaign records from the 2014 gubernatorial race uncovered several cases of individuals who exceeded the state-set cap on contributions. But, the report said, those instances were not flagged for review during the election.

The AG’s office dedicates one attorney to election law. He is in charge of investigating potential violations and overseeing lawsuits. Currently, there’s a backlog of complaints.

“Our resources are pretty tight,” said Steve LaBonte, the assistant attorney general who handles election complaints. “It’s me. That’s our resources.”

Lobbyists, political committees and state candidates are all required by New Hampshire law to file financial forms with the secretary of state’s office.

They show how much lobbyists spend, and where candidates get their donations, among other information.

But the office staff doesn’t regularly review the filings to ensure they are filled out correctly or contain adequate information. It’s usually members of the public or other campaigns that look at the documents and point out potential violations, which are then directed to the AG’s office, according to office staff.

“Are there issues in those reports that could be picked up if there was a review? I think the answer is yes,” said David Scanlan, deputy secretary of state. “Most are unintentional, there are mistakes, some may be a violation of the statute. At this point, it’s mostly the general public reviewing the reports that come in, that pick up on issues with them and point them out.”

Lobbyists are required to file four statements annually with the secretary of state’s office, but a story in the Telegraph of Nashua last year found there was little oversight of the information, and the forms are often hard to read or not completely filled out.

At least one member of the House Legislative Administration Committee, which is reviewing the lobbying bill, filed incomplete campaign finance reports in 2014, the Monitor found.

While the representative spent more than $500 – the threshold that triggers reporting requirements for state candidates – and logged those expenditures, he didn’t list his campaign donors.

House campaign finance reports, unlike those of senators and political committees, are not posted online. They are printed, sorted and kept in a file cabinet in the secretary of state’s office for public review.

Lack of campaign finance enforcement is not an issue that’s flying under the radar. But lawmakers this year have been unable to agree on any proposals to beef up oversight. The Senate voted down two bills last week.

One, from Concord Sen. Dan Feltes, would have imposed a sliding fee on candidates and political committees that spend more than $5,000 in an election. Proceeds would have helped cover enforcement costs. Another proposal would have allowed citizens to file campaign finance complaints with the ballot law commission, a group in charge of resolving recounts and candidate eligibility.

So as the 2016 state election cycle heats up, members of the public concerned with campaign finance reform should be ready to review filings.

Revolving door

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan is taking flak from members of her own party for nominating Republican Sen. Jerry Little as banking commissioner. Little was previously head of the New Hampshire Bankers Association, and lobbied on behalf of the industry Hassan is now proposing he regulate.

Democrats say the move was ill-timed and feeds into the notion of a revolving door. Democratic radio host Arnie Arnesen penned a column in the Monitor calling it “tone deaf to the anger and distrust of the voting public.” And a petition on the platform change.org calling for Hassan to rescind the nomination has garnered more than 700 signatures.

Little’s nomination comes up for a public hearing in March. Then the five-member Executive Council, controlled by Republicans, has final say. The confirmation vote could put the council’s two Democrats in a bind, picking between public sentiment and Hassan’s choice.

Outside money

If the People’s Pledge were in place, Republican Kelly Ayotte would be looking at a hefty contribution to a charity of competitor Maggie Hassan’s choice.

Ayotte and Hassan have been unable to agree on the terms of a pledge to limit outside money in their race. And so the money is pouring in.

The conservative Judicial Crisis Network announced last week it was launching a “seven-figure television, radio and digital advertising campaign” that praises Ayotte’s stance on the Supreme Court nominee: that it’s a decision best left to the next president.

“The Supreme Court has a vacancy, and your vote in November is your only voice,” the ad says. “Sen. Kelly Ayotte agrees; the American people should decide.”

Hassan has slammed Ayotte for her stance, calling any attempt to stall confirmation “a complete abdication of the Senate’s constitutional duty.” But Ayotte’s position is the one getting the air time.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)

N.H. campaign finance lapses go unnoticed – Concord Monitor}