A Fine Mess

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

City of Miami Commissioner Arthur Teele insists it is news to him that he owes $6100 to Miami-Dade taxpayers. Back in 1996, during his failed bid to become county mayor, Teele submitted campaign spending forms 207 days late. As a result the elections department fined the former county commission chairman and Reagan administration official $10,500. Although the Florida Elections Commission (FEC) reduced the sum by almost half in February 1998, county records indicate it was never collected.

Teele, who has had significant personal financial problems, acknowledges he's uncertain whether a check was sent. He referred New Timesto his lawyer, Wilson Jerry Foster, who is equally unsure. “I have no knowledge on the payment ... and I haven't been involved since [the appeal],” says Foster.

In an effort to ferret out the truth, New Times on Friday, June 30, turned to the county's assistant supervisor of elections Gisela Salas, who reviewed the record. Turns out that after the FEC decision, the county never contacted Teele to demand payment. The following Monday, after New Times came knocking, Salas sent out a notice. The commissioner was given 30 days to pay up.

Teele is not the only politician who county bureaucrats have apparently allowed to slide. Public documents show dozens of other office seekers and several political action committees (PACs) owe the county more than $50,000. New Timesmade the discovery while rummaging through hundreds of county election records over six days. Indeed New Times found the county's election department to be disorganized, overworked, understaffed, and timid in its pursuit of violators. Candidates who have outstanding fines often are not notified. Those who do pay sometimes are not credited. In a few cases, penalties have even been incorrectly assessed.

After New Times presented its findings to Salas, the county sent out reminder letters for unpaid penalties to eleven candidates, including County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle, County Court Judge Wendell Graham, and school board member Betsy Kaplan. And Salas changed some of her division's practices. Henceforth, she says, the department will no longer send two or three courtesy letters asking for payment. Now one letter is all they'll send out.

Why do campaign laws matter? For starters incomplete disclosure can give those who don't play by the rules an unfair advantage. And improper uses of campaign money (like fraud and cash payments to voters, both staples of Miami politics) are more difficult to detect if candidates report their finances inaccurately or late. Perhaps most important, lackadaisical enforcement confirms the widely held perception that Miami-Dade County's politicians serve lobbyists and special interests rather than the public.

The rules for submitting campaign documents are fairly straightforward. Reports are filed quarterly. In most cases three must be submitted before election day and one afterward. Most fines owed to the county are the result of late reports. According to county law, for the first three days a report is late, the candidate or PAC is assessed a penalty of $50 per day. Salas or someone from her staff is required to mail a certified letter informing candidates of the oversight. After three days if a report still is not filed, the fine increases to $500 per day. (The penalty cannot exceed 25 percent of total contributions or expenditures.) If the report in question is the last one before election day, fines beginat $500 per day.

The penalties can be appealed to the nine-member FEC. If the fine is upheld, the county must collect. “If [candidates] don't pay, it is up to the [county] to track down and find [them],” says Malcolm Chellman, commission business manager.

Miami-Dade is one of the FEC's most active regions, Chellman says. At press time the county election department was trying to keep track of 75 declared candidates for 90 positions. (Qualifying deadlines in July likely increased the number.) By election day there probably will be thousands of pages of contributions and spending to review.

Generally the election department is two years behind in auditing campaign reports, Salas admits. Files are disorganized. Just five people, including a secretary and a temporary worker, are available to review the papers. It's not easy for them to find time; they must also supply information to the public, compile election statistics, update procedure manuals, maintain the department's Website, process candidate financial-disclosure forms (which number more than 3000), and assemble and train pollworkers. On a cubicle wall, a sign sums up their predicament. “God put me on Earth to accomplish a certain number of things,” it reads. “Right now I am so far behind I will never die.”

The department also has experienced technical and logistical problems. Currently it has no real idea of the status of previous years' reports by PACs. The computer program that held the information has crashed three times, most recently last year. Much of the data have been lost. “I thank God it was just political action committees and not the candidates,” remarks Salas.

There are other problems. A computer error with dates caused at least two candidates who filed on time to receive erroneous notifications of fines. Salas contends her staff gets no technical support from the Miami-Dade County Information and Technology Department.

“If we don't follow up with the fines, it renders the whole disclosure process meaningless,” elections supervisor David Leahy admits. Department staff approach their work like triage. “You are dealing with what is in front of you,” Leahy says. “Not what happened yesterday.” What Leahy doesn't say is that it's in the interest of incumbents, like the commissioners, to ignore the problem. They generally raise far more money from special interests and therefore must submit more complicated reports than challengers.

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.

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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