Transparency key to campaign finance reform – Jackson Clarion Ledger
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Mississippi politicians are required to regularly file campaign finance reports, and those reports, posted online by the secretary of state, are supposed to show the public details of the money they took in and spent.
But often, none of the above is the case.
For starters, Mississippi’s campaign finance records are kept online as PDFs, or pictures of each page of a report. They can’t be easily searched or tallied for donors or spending. Many other states’ and federal records are in searchable databases. Many Mississippi reports are handwritten, and some don’t use the state forms. One candidate for statewide office last year did hers in calligraphy.
Mississippi campaign finance reports are often missing, incomplete, incorrect or illegible.
Take, for instance, state Rep. Bubba Carpenter’s June 10, 2015, periodic campaign report online.
There isn’t one.
The online file labeled as Carpenter’s June 10 report is for someone named Lester Williams, who listed the office he sought as “state.”
In another of his reports from last summer, it appears a piece of paper or something blocked out Carpenter’s totals on his cover sheet.For his annual report covering 2014, pages of Carpenter’s filing are illegible — what appears to be a problem with the fax machine at the Center for Women’s Health he used to send it in. Also, it appears someone at the secretary of state’s office accidentally scanned an interoffice memo on election worker training into Carpenter’s report.
The secretary of state’s office is required to publish a list of statewide or legislative candidates “who failed to timely file their campaign finance report.” The office routinely sends such a list to state media. It sent out such a list last year after many failed to file a required Oct. 27 report or filed it a day or two late.
But weeks — in some cases months — later, no Oct. 27 reports were available for several politicians, including state Sens. Terry Burton and Buck Clarke and Reps. Deborah Butler Dixon, Mark Formby and Andy Gipson. Yet their names did not go out on the wire as being tardy.
Hosemann and an elections division official in his office in early February were nonplussed about missing reports from people who were not listed as late filers. They said the lag time for scanning reports received is typically no more than a day or two. The elections worker conceded there have been cases of “dropped reports” by the office.
Oct. 27 reports for Burton, Formby and Gipson showed up online shortly thereafter, marked as received Oct. 27. Clarke’s and Dixon’s were still missing as of last week, although subsequent reports for them were online.
Last year, the online political blog Dark Horse Mississippi reported that state Rep. John Moore’s 2012 annual report was missing from the campaign finance website. The blog contacted The Clarion-Ledger and others, wanting someone else to confirm the report was missing. It appeared to be missing. But it showed up after the blog reported it, dated as received 2½ years earlier.
Hosemann said his office does not back-date any documents it receives and suggested either computer problems or someone not knowing how to use the website might account for reports not being found.
Dixon’s annual report covering 2014 appears to still be missing from the website. As does Rep. Steve Holland’s annual report covering 2013. For Rep. Robert Johnson III, his annual reports covering 2013 and 2014 appear to be the same file, stamped received Jan. 30, 2015, and covering his campaign for 2014.
Hosemann said putting campaign finance records into a searchable database would be a difficult and expensive endeavor. He estimated it would cost about $150,000.
Hosemann said his office is mainly just a repository for campaign reports and he lacks the legal authority and manpower to do much beyond scanning them in and putting them online. He said his office has recently started requiring candidates to fill in more of the blanks on the forms and sending reports back as incomplete if they don’t.
Larry Noble of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington said campaign finance reporting and transparency is the key to keeping money in politics aboveboard.
“The first step is full disclosure,” Noble said. “Even if you don’t have any other laws or regulations, disclosure helps, once you turn that rock over.”
Having campaign records in a searchable format “is a big deal,” Noble said.
“What isn’t filed electronically anymore?” Noble said. “You don’t have to get fancy with it. Maybe have thresholds, campaigns with money below a certain amount don’t have to do it.
“This is not new anymore. It’s being done everywhere.”
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Transparency key to campaign finance reform – Jackson Clarion Ledger}