A Fine Mess

Miami-Dade's election workers are overworked, underpaid, and years behind

Most of the fines owed to the department are in the range of $50 to $100, but some numbers are far higher. Among the candidates who currently owe larger sums are County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle ($3,039.89), County Court Judge Wendell Graham ($3,511.00), Westchester community councilman Carlos Valderrama ($3,039.89), and school board member Betsy Kaplan ($650.00). Most of them claim they were unaware of the debts. County records show some received notice, but most did not.

“I didn't know anything about it,” laughs Rolle, who submitted a campaign finance report 57 days late for his commission race in 1998. “When I receive an official notice, I will be happy to pay it promptly.”

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I owed something,” says Graham, who insists he did not ignore his fine. The judge says his campaign treasurer made a mistake on a filing date. Once he received notification, his treasurer submitted the report. Graham assumed the matter was resolved. Two years later, in March 2000, he received a notice of fine, so he complained. “We responded with a letter saying, “Hey what are you guys doing? This isn't right,'” he says. The county failed to answer until New Times inquired. After receiving a second notice by mail, Graham filed an appeal with the FEC.

Miami City Commissioner Arthur Teele is one of the many candidates who owe election fines
Steve Satterwhite
Miami City Commissioner Arthur Teele is one of the many candidates who owe election fines

Kaplan also was notified by the county after New Times pointed out her past-due problem. She too is filing an appeal with the FEC.

Assistant election supervisor Gisela Salas insists the situation is improving. This year's campaign reports have all been audited, she asserts. Recently her office sent letters to Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss and Mayor Alex Penelas informing them they submitted incomplete reports. Yet upon review New Times discovered errors in the reports turned in at the beginning of the year by candidates Barbara Carey, Betty Ferguson, and Natacha Millan. Salas acknowledges her staff could have missed them. “There is just not enough of me to ascertain the correctness of the files,” she admits. “It is possible there could be others.”

There is hope on the horizon. Commissioner Jimmy Morales has pushed an aggressive campaign-reform agenda through the commission. Although his efforts to criminalize violations of reporting laws failed, he convinced his colleagues to approve a more moderate measure. Beginning in 2002 candidates must submit campaign reports on diskette, so they can be easily posted on the Internet. (One additional person will likely be hired to do this.) This should help make the process easier to manage. Yet Morales does admit it might all be for naught if the election department doesn't have the staff to enforce the measure. “We have been focusing so much on the laws,” he notes. “Maybe we should [also] be focusing on the infrastructure.”

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