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Thursday, August 10, 2023

Campaign finance violations are soaring.

Local candidates caught include MAGA Sen. Elaine Morgan, her opponent Jennifer Douglas and former state rep. Larry Valencia

By Nancy Lavin, Rhode Island Current

Richard Thornton, director of campaign finance for the
Rhode Island Board of Elections, is finding more mistakes on
reports filed by candidates more often.
(Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)
Think of Richard Thornton like a financial detective.

As campaign finance director for the Rhode Island Board of Elections, Thornton devotes his days to combing through stacks of spending and fundraising reports for candidates, political action committees and ballot question advocacy groups, cross-checking those accounts with bank statements for potential errors or red flags. 

And these days, he’s finding problems a lot more often.

Indeed, the $13,150 in fines candidates paid to the election board in 2022 for campaign finance mistakes (not counting late fees) is more than triple the amount paid the year prior, according to data obtained by Rhode Island Current. With another $5,000 in finance violations paid through July of this year, 2023 is also poised to show a larger increase than in years past.

At face value, this might be cause for alarm. But Thornton sees it as a good thing; it means his three-person team is getting better at sniffing out rulebreakers.

“Our focus has really shifted through the years,” Thornton said. “We have these additional tools which have expanded our role, and we’ve seen a lot of success in that approach.”

The turning point came in 2015, with a trio of bills signed into law by then-Gov. Gina Raimondo that strengthened campaign finance rules and reporting requirements. 

John Marion, executive director for Common Cause Rhode Island, describes the bevy of law changes as the “post-Gordon Fox reform,” referring to the former Rhode Island House Speaker who was sentenced to three years in federal prison in 2015 after pleading guilty to bribery, wire fraud and tax evasion.

“I think the number 1 reason you’re seeing more violations is thanks to the post-Gordon Fox reforms, which make it easier for the Board of Elections to spot when there is a violation,” Marion said. “It may look like more people are cheating, but the reality is, people may have been cheating all along, we’re just catching them more.”

Among the bills passed in the wake of the Fox scandal: requiring candidates and political action committees to turn over quarterly bank account statements in addition to their separate accounts of fundraising and spending. 

Other laws passed as part of the package of campaign finance reforms require candidates, officeholders and political action committees to keep their campaign accounts separate, and to appoint a treasurer other than themselves if they raise or spend more than $10,000 in a year. 

The bank statement law, in particular, was a “gamechanger,” Thornton said. 

Comparing a bank statement with a campaign finance report allowed his staff to find “variances,” which in turn, often revealed larger problems with a candidate or committee’s finances. 

Also crucial: the almighty subpoena, which the elections board has always had authority to use but has turned to increasingly in recent years if a candidate or committee isn’t willingly turning over their financial information, Thornton said. 

While the changes to state campaign finance law went into effect in 2016, the results of those changes took longer to realize. Hence, the increase in fines from campaign finance violations starting in 2021, according to Thornton.

A few of those violations suggest glaring and intentional rule breaking, but more often, Thornton described the violations as inadvertent or accidental errors. 

Take Sen. Elaine Morgan. The Hopkinton Republican was among the nine people who entered into consent orders with the election board in 2022 for campaign finance violations. Morgan, who has served in the Rhode Island Senate since 2014, paid a $1,200 fine after she was found to have spent more than $2,600 of campaign funds on personal expenses during the two prior years, according to the election board audit.

Morgan readily admitted to the mistake, which she chalked up to “accidental stupidity.”

She had wrongly thought her campaign debit card was her personal one, since both were marked with her name and from the same bank, Washington Trust Co., she said. 

While she characterized her violation as inadvertent, she also stressed the importance of candidates following the rules.

“If we’re going to take money, we have to know the rules,” she said. 

Which, based on Thornton’s efforts, they should.

Outreach efforts include mailings, trainings

Every candidate for state or local office gets a 26-page packet about state campaign finance laws when turning in their nomination papers, including a form they must sign affirming they received the information. Thornton also hosts a series of optional training sessions – held virtually post-pandemic with a recorded version on the election board website. 

Most are sparsely attended; the highest number of attendees he recalled was 30 people, out of roughly 1,800 candidates and committees required to file quarterly reports in an election year.

Ahead of each reporting deadline, each candidate receives a reminder by first-class mail. Then there are the email reminders, which Thornton sends out every day and multiple times per day leading up to every reporting deadline.

A grassroots group called Operation Clean Government also has hosted a candidate training school which included information about state campaign finance rules. 

The group has since disbanded, and its former president, Larry Valencia, is also under criminal investigation by the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General after being found in a 2022 audit to have dipped into the Richmond Democratic Town Committee funds for personal use. 

Even without the candidate school, there’s certainly no shortage of education, Marion said. Which is why he struggles to wrap his head around the number of violators – including existing elected officials – who plead ignorance when caught.

“It’s always surprising to me how many legislators violate the laws they promote and vote on,” he said.

“I think since the Gordon Fox reforms, not knowing becomes a lamer excuse than it used to be,” he added.

Not that it has stopped people from using that as defense, including Providence Councilman Juan Pichardo. The Board of Elections in June fined Pichardo $3,000 after finding he failed to properly account for more than $24,000 combined in fundraising and spending during his 2022 campaign. 

In a statement, Pichardo, a Democrat, chalked up the violations to “incomplete record-keeping,” despite having previously served as state senator for 14 years, including as a member of the Senate Committee on Finance.

Pichardo declined to comment for this story.

Abney takes ‘full responsibility’ for improper loan

Another potential surprise offender is House Finance Chairman Marvin Abney. The Rhode Island GOP has asked the Federal Elections Commission to investigate the Newport Democrat for a $50,000 personal loan he accepted as part of his now-ended bid for the 1st Congressional District. 

Abney in an interview on Friday said he took “full responsibility” for the violation, and has paid back the loan with interest using personal money.

“I thought, like most people did, that if it’s a personal loan to you, then the amount of money you can put into your campaign isn’t subject to those limits,” Abney said. “I didn’t think anything of it until I was told just last week it was a problem. It was never nefarious.”

He added, “I am not saying I shouldn’t have looked further into it.”

Marion acknowledged that federal campaign finance rules – which classify personal loans as donations subject to the $3,300 limit – differ from state laws, which don’t discuss personal loans.

Compliance is ultimate goal

Thornton stressed that even when violations are found, compliance is the goal. The elections board will often consider personal circumstances when deciding upon penalties for broken rules.

Certain fines are not subjective: fees accrued for late filing of a report, which starts at $25 plus $2 a day for every day after the person in question has received a notice of their violation. However, fees paid from these “pedestrian fines,” as Thornton described them, have decreased substantially in recent years.

In 2021, the Board of Elections was paid $14,002 in late filing fees, which was transferred to the state’s general fund. By comparison, $23,811 in late fees flowed into state coffers in 2018.

That’s partly because more candidates and committees are meeting the deadlines – Thornton estimated fewer than 10% of reports are late or not filed, compared with 25% historically. And for those stragglers who fail to meet the deadlines, the board is increasingly using its subpoena power to fill in the missing information, limiting the amount of fees accrued.

“We’re really controlling it at the bottom,” he said.

As for the $6 million balance in unpaid debt racked up from 21 years of campaign violations (including late fees), most of that is from fines imposed so long ago, they will probably never get recovered, Thornton said.



Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.