Attorneys at the state ethics commission have been plowing through a backlog of old complaints, attempting to settle cases that lay largely untouched during the turbulent reign of fired executive secretary Holly LaBerge.
The new head of that office, Stefan Ritter, said last week that roughly 100 complaints remain and he expects those will be adjudicated by the end of 2016. “Or maybe well before that,” he said. “We’re moving through them quickly.”
At a meeting of the commission last week, commissioners approved consent orders closing about 20 cased filed between 2012 and this year. Another 17 cases were closed at the commission’s meeting in June.
But clearing out the old complaints is just one of the hurdles the commission faces as it crawls back from near total collapse this time last year. Ritter said the commission is owed around $3.5 million in unpaid fines, mostly from politicians and lobbyists who failed to file required reports.
“We would like to take steps to collect that money,” Ritter said.
That’s the kind of talk that spurred state lawmakers to introduce a pair of bills giving near amnesty for most of those fines by requiring the ethics commission to prove filers didn’t try to file their reports on time. The bills, neither of which passed this year but are alive for 2016, were pushed by lobbyists for municipal and county officials who claimed confusing procedures and broken computer systems made filing difficult, especially when deadlines approached.
Ritter told commissioners that computer server problems were largely corrected in 2012. The current system is “extremely reliable,” yet thousands of local politicians around the state still have not filed overdue reports, he said.
“These filers have had years to make their filings and have not done so,” he said.
Ritter could not put an exact figure on the number of officials who owe, but he said he had a spreadsheet 300 pages long with “thousands” of names.
By law, the fines escalate with the passage of time, so a few late filings quickly can accrue thousands of dollars in fines. While Ritter said he’d like to pursue collecting the fines, he said the commission’s past difficulties, including problems in sending out late notices via registered mail, means his office faces an uphill climb.
Since many of the past-due notices go back years and span several administrations, Commission Chairwoman Hillary Stringfellow asked what percentage of the escalated fines is really collectible at this point.
“I would suspect it is very low,” Ritter said.
Moreover, the task of collecting all those fines is likely beyond the reach of the commission’s relatively small staff.
“If we could fully and aggressively go after everyone we see as a non-filer … we would need a lot more staff than we have now,” he said.
Ritter took the top staff spot in the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission in April after spending 18 years in the Attorney General’s office.