Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill is taking legal action against a handful of candidates who have failed to pay campaign finance violation penalties incurred during the 2018 election cycle — including a former Democratic House candidate from Mobile.

According to a news release, Merrill’s office filed complaints Dec. 27 in a Montgomery County small claims court against nine former candidates — including former Alabama House District 99 candidate Burton LeFlore — over a combined 24 unpaid penalties.

“The Fair Campaign Practices Act [FCPA] does not protect the people of Alabama when campaigns and their committees avoid transparent reporting of the campaign’s financial activity,” Merrill said in the release. “This law was established to provide the people of Alabama with a concise report of the financial activity of those seeking public office.”

In addition to LeFlore, the list included Deidra Willis, Franklin Edwards, John Moton Jr., Richard Dickerson, Roderick Clark, Terrence Johnson, Veronica Johnson and William Hobbs — all of whom ran unsuccessfully for offices in various Alabama races in 2018.

LeFlore, a Mobile native, came in near the bottom of a crowded field in the Democratic primary to replace longtime state Rep. James Buskey (D-Mobile). LeFlore’s campaign appears to have been predominantly self-funded based on filings that were submitted to Merrill’s office between February and June of 2018. 

However, data provided to Lagniappe by Merrill’s office indicates LeFlore was fined $3,611 for six filing violations throughout the election cycle. It also doesn’t appear LeFlore had made any payments toward those fines as of Dec. 28, 2018, when Merrill filed a complaint against him and two of his campaign officials. 

According to Merrill’s office, each of LeFlore’s violations was forwarded to the Alabama Ethics Commission, which has the authority to adjudicate or dismiss reporting violations under the law. However, the commission determined LeFlore’s alleged violations fell outside its jurisdiction.

Calls to LeFlore seeking comment for this report were not immediately returned. The Dec. 28 complaint filed by the secretary of state’s office can be viewed below: 

With elections at the county and state level, a lot of cash rolled into Alabama politics in 2018, and the receipt and expenditure of those dollars is something all candidates and political action committees, or PACs, have to report on a monthly, weekly and sometimes daily basis.

Generally, campaign finance reports are due on the second business day of each month, but campaigns also have to report exceptionally large individual donations, and in the final stages of a race, weekly and even daily filings of new transactions are required.

Though, it’s not very uncommon for candidates, especially newcomers, to miss a deadline for one of those filings. In fact, according to data provided by Merrill’s office, more than 1,600 candidates and PACs in Alabama were fined in 2018 including 34 in Mobile County.

When delinquencies occur, Merrill’s office is tasked with bringing financial penalties against the offender, and because the fines return to Alabama’s general fund, the office has the authority to take legal action to collect them.

“Penalties are issued to any [candidate] that does not file their campaign finance report by midnight on the date the report is due,” Merrill said in the release. “[Candidates] are required to report all contributions and expenditures incurred by their campaign during the previous month.”

The level of those fines increases based on the number of offenses a specific campaign has committed during a given election cycle — escalating from $300, to $600 and eventually $1,200 for a third offense.

In Alabama, campaign finance penalties can also be paid with campaign funds and as of Dec. 4, Merrill said, his office had collected $106,531 of a possible $201,893, though that amount has increased in recent weeks. Nearly $14,000 in fines was collected from candidates in Mobile.

State records indicate LeFlore was among the top offenders in Mobile County, though he wasn’t the most highly fined local official. That would be state Rep. Napoleon Bracy Jr. (D-Mobile), who Merrill’s office indicates paid $3,731 in fines for six reported violations in 2018. Bracy faced no opposition in the primary or general election.

Other local Democrats were fined as well: Thomas Holmes, $601 for two violations; Henry Haseeb, $694 for five violations; Gregory Harris, $152 for one violation; Rep. Barbara Drummond, $2,200 for four violations; Sen. Vivian Figures, $2,100 for three violations; and Rep. Adline Clarke, $69 for a single violation.

The Mobile County Democratic Executive Committee was also fined $282 for six reported violations. While the Mobile County Republican Executive Committee wasn’t cited for any state fines, its counterpart in Baldwin County was fined $2,100 for three violations.

Individual GOP candidates from Mobile County fined by the state were: Willie Gray, $300 for one violation; Derrick Williams, $300 for one violation; Rep. Shane Stringer, $525 for two violations; District Judge Spiro Cheriogotis, $300 for one violation; and Alabama Court of Civil Appeals Judge Terry A. Moore, $300 for one violation.

Under state law, when four or more violations are committed by the same campaign, it establishes a “rebuttable presumption of intent to violate the reporting requirements,” and by law the secretary of state’s office is required to notify the appropriate district attorney or Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office.

Merrill’s chief of staff, John Bennett, said the office doesn’t make any judgment as to whether violations are intentional.

“State law gives us the responsibility to forward those violations to the AG or the DA, but not the ability to make a determination on a committee-by-committee basis as to whether that presumption of intent exists,” Bennett said.

A complete list of all the candidates and PACs that received warnings or fines during Alabama’s 2018 election cycle is available here: fullViolationsReport-11-9-2018

The most recent reporting guideline changes adopted by the Legislature only went into effect in 2018, and Merrill said it’s the responsibility of anyone seeking public office to follow the rules, whether they’re a first-time candidate or a seasoned veteran.