Secretary of State unveils new reporting system, could get new enforcement powers

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Secretary of State Beth Chapman

Secretary of State Beth Chapman

Given a new set of incisors to enforce campaign finance law, the Secretary of State’s office Wednesday unveiled a new online reporting system aimed at making it easier to trace donations and publicly identify entities that drag their feet on filing.

The new system will go online next Wednesday, a few days before the official start of fundraising for the 2014 election cycle on June 3. Secretary of State Beth Chapman said the system will allow PACs and candidates for state offices to file “completely electronically” and flag those that miss reporting deadlines.

“The whole world will see that they’re late with their reports,” Chapman said at a demonstration Wednesday morning. “The press will see they’re late with their reports. It will encourage transparency.”

The first deadline for filing under the new system is July 2, for campaign activity in the month of June.

The new system comes as the Secretary of State gets new teeth. In the past, the office collected and presented campaign filings, but had little power to enforce the laws; the Attorney General’s office generally made those calls. On Monday, the Legislature approved a campaign finance bill that, among other provisions, authorizes the Secretary of State’s office to fine violators for missing filing deadlines. The fines range from $300 for a first offense to up to 20 percent of the amount not reported following a third or subsequent violation.

Deputy Secretary of State Emily Thompson said Wednesday afternoon the means of getting those fines aren’t spelled out.

“It does give us ability to collect the fines in law, but it’s not clearly set in law how we are to collect them,” she said. “But it does give us that ability.”

The bill has been sent to Gov. Robert Bentley for his signature. Jennifer Ardis, a spokeswoman for Bentley, said Wednesday the legislation was under review.

The new campaign finance system will also allow candidates and committees to register online “24/7,” Chapman said. Individuals will also be able to track the entire history of a candidate or committee’s activity; the financial activity of candidates running for a particular office, and the specific amount of donations given to a candidate. Chapman also said funds will have to be entered electronically, which she hoped would lead to more accurate reporting.

Initially, the new system will only contain information for the 2014 election cycle. Chapman said the old campaign finance system, with its reports going back to the late 90s, will remain online until the historic data can be moved into the new system. There is no timeframe set on that.

The system will not cover municipal candidates. County commission candidates are not required to use the new system, but may do so if they desire.

Indiana-based Quest Information Systems handled the upgrade. Chapman said the contract with the company was worth about $300,000; state records show the company had been paid $121,000 through Wednesday. It would be the first upgrade of the state’s campaign finance disclosure system since the 1990s, said Adam Thompson, Chapman’s Deputy Chief of Staff.

– posted by Brian Lyman

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