Former Alabama House candidate Burton LeFlore is challenging fines he received for late financial disclosure filings in the 2018 election cycle — claiming that the state’s fees disproportionately impact political novices and discourage new candidates.
As has been reported, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill took legal action against LeFlore and eight other political candidates in December after making several unsuccessful attempts to collect fines associated with more than two dozen campaign violations that occurred in 2018.
While some of those candidates quickly paid the outstanding fines after Merrill’s office sued them in small claims court, LeFlore has continued to challenge the fines he describes as “unfair and overreaching.”
Representing himself, LeFlore argued his case before Montgomery County District Judge Pamela Higgins on Tuesday, but those efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful. Higgins ordered LeFlore and two other defendants associated with his campaign to pay the outstanding fines in full as well as all associated court costs.
Prior to the bench trial, Leflore told Lagniappe that he believes there are “less restrictive means the state could use to encourage candidates to file their reports on time.”
“The state has already been accused of voter suppression,” he said. “It’s almost like candidate suppression.”
The complaint Merrill’s office brought against LeFlore and a handful of other candidates across the state were a part of its broader efforts to enforce new filing requirements under the Fair Campaign Practices Act [FCPA]. In all, the office issued $201,893 in total fines throughout the 2018 election cycle.
In Alabama, candidates and political action committees have to regularly report all campaign contributions and expenditures through an online electronic system managed by Merrill’s office.
Any candidate who fails to disclose the required information or does so after the deadline can be fined anywhere from $300 to $1,200 per violation. Fines also increase as the number of violations committed by a particular campaign add up throughout the election cycle.
LeFlore was fined $3,447 for six filing violations during his 2018 campaign for the District 99 House seat.
According to Merrill’s complaint, LeFlore’s campaign filed at least five finance reports after their respective deadlines, some monthly and some weekly. He eventually attempted to appeal those fines to the Alabama Ethics Commission, but the case was dismissed in September of 2018.
LeFlore said he was unable to attend a hearing on the matter because it was scheduled as a tropical storm was approaching the Gulf Coast, but correspondence from the Ethics Commission states his appeal was dismissed because it too was filed late.
LeFlore said he understands why there’s a need for candidates to publicly disclose their campaign finance activity in a timely manner and said anyone running for office should “certainly needs to make themselves aware” of that process. While he doesn’t deny filing some reports after they were due, he has maintained that some of those late filings weren’t his fault and that none of them were malicious or nefarious.
In response to Merrill’s lawsuit, LeFlore has argued that a clerical error in his initial paperwork led to the campaign not receiving any notices or emails from the Secretary of State’s office “making the campaign aware that the reports were due and on what dates they were due to be submitted.”
For all six of his individual violations, LeFlore maintained that he is “not able to pay the fine” and that “the imposition of such a fine disparately impacted his efforts to influence the outcome of the election.” Asked to elaborate, he said fines impact new candidates more than incumbents.
“Even though the law could be enforced proportionally across the board, there are certain people — not talking about racial minorities or anything like that — but certain candidates it affects more than others,” he said. “Unless you’re an extremely experienced politician connected with PACS and other donors, you’re going to have to invest some of your own money. If you don’t win, you’ve already been put in a hardship situation, and then you’ve got fines on top of that.”
Merrill declined to discuss LeFlore’s case specifically but did say his office is tasked with enforcing the rules written by the Alabama Legislature. He said the only disparate impact is that the laws only affect politicians.
“There is a constituency that is disproportionately impacted by the implementation and administration of these laws, and that would be those people who offer themselves up for public service and become candidates for public office,” Merrill said. “Nobody else is affected.”
One of LeFlore’s contentions has been that new candidates don’t often have the same political infrastructure that incumbents have — especially those who’ve been in politics for years. He suggested newcomers could be disproportionately prone to receive violations because they’re not familiar with the rules.
Asked about that, Merrill said the bulk of the fines his office issued last year stem from changes the legislature passed in 2015. He said those laws didn’t take effect until the 2018 election cycle and were new to every Alabamian who ran for office in last year.
“That argument might have some level of validity if you were making it in 2020 or 2026, but this is the first time these laws have ever had to be adhered to,” he said. “I actually think incumbent candidates had more fines than non-incumbents, at least in terms of the highest fines.”
According to a list of all campaign violations released by Merrill’s office last year, there were hundreds of incumbents, longtime politicians and even entire political parties that received fines for late filings similar to LeFlore’s in 2018.
While there is a learning curve for new candidates when it comes to the rules that govern elections in Alabama, Merrill said his office makes efforts to publish and distribute materials to help walk all candidates navigate the process. The office also makes all information available online as well.
“Our team is outstanding. They’ve been trained to assist our constituents whether they’re elected officials, people running for office or anyone trying to influence public policy,” Merrill said. “If people don’t find the resources available online are sufficient, we’ll meet with them personally — at the capitol or in their district — to make sure their needs are met.”
It should be noted that one of the reasons campaign finance rules exist is so the public can track the people, corporations and political entities influencing elections. Yet, based upon available records, LeFlore funded the vast majority of his 2018 campaign himself.
He said that’s because it was “impossible to raise money” in such a crowded Democratic primary. He ultimately finished fifth among six candidates, and according to state records, the efforts cost the campaign a little over $19,000 — much of it LeFlore’s own money.
“I’m still trying to overcome the loss and what I put into this campaign to get back where I need to be. Financially, I took a bit of a hit,” he said. “I lost, but life goes on. I’m ready to get on with my life, yet here I am nine months later in Montgomery getting ready to deal with some fines.”
Before he appeared in court Tuesday, LeFlore seemed to acknowledged he would likely be unsuccessful in overturning his fines, adding that it would be highly unlikely for a decision about the fairness or constitutionality of the state’s campaign fines to be decided at the district court level.
“I’ll probably end up paying the fines,” he said. “I won’t be happy about it, but I’ll know I tried.”
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).