- Associated Press - Friday, May 16, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Campaign finance reports filed by former Rhode Island House Speaker Gordon Fox show a number of expense checks unaccounted for, including 23 last year, according to an analysis by The Associated Press conducted as federal authorities are looking at Fox’s campaign finance history.

Fox also engaged in some campaign finance practices that watchdog groups say are questionable, although allowed by law: Fox had a Statehouse employee doing his campaign books and Fox acted as his own campaign treasurer.

The U.S. Attorney’s office has not said what it is investigating, or even who the office is targeting. The probe became public March 21 when agents with the FBI and IRS, along with State Police raided Fox’s home and Statehouse office. The Board of Elections, which keeps campaign finance records, has said law enforcement contacted it about Fox that day also.

Fox resigned as speaker the next day. He continues in the House seat he has held for more than 20 years.

His lawyer, Albin Moser, said this week the probe is wide-ranging.

The AP’s analysis of Fox’s individual campaign account stretched back to April 1, 2008, the earliest date that check numbers were available on his campaign finance reports, which ask for check numbers. The account information comes from the public campaign finance reports filed by Fox’s campaign, and gave no indication that money went missing.

The campaign reports some of the same information a check register would: a check number, the payee and the amount. The AP looked for gaps in the sequence of check numbers in the expenditures he reported. It found 90 checks were unaccounted for from April 1, 2008, through March 31 of this year, a period when about 1,000 checks apparently were written. Half of those were missing in 2012 and 2013, years when about 360 were written, according to the campaign reports.

In the first quarter, which ended March 31, 10 days after the raid, just one check was unaccounted for. Fox filed that report on May 9.

It’s unclear why the check numbers weren’t recorded, and their absence doesn’t necessarily indicate any wrongdoing. Possible explanations for the gaps include typos, faulty record keeping, or checks that were written but never cashed by the recipients.

His campaign account had $244,000 in it as of March 31, according to Fox’s report. The campaign reported taking in $732,781 in contributions and spending $575,000 between April 1, 2008, and March 31.

When asked this week about the missing checks, Fox said his attorneys had instructed him not to talk.

“I wouldn’t know anything about that. Missing checks and all that stuff, whether checks were voided, or I don’t know,” he told the AP. “I’m not going to talk about anything, about any of that stuff now.”

His lawyer, Bill Murphy, did not return a message seeking comment.

According to the Board of Elections, Fox’s former Statehouse executive assistant, Ruth Desmarais, did Fox’s books. Neither she nor her lawyer had any comment.

No audit of his campaign accounts has ever been completed, said Richard Thornton, campaign finance director for the Board of Elections. He would not comment on whether a full audit is currently being conducted that compares Fox’s campaign finance report with bank records, copies of checks and other documentation to verify that what was reported was correct.

Audits are required for any candidate who qualifies for state matching funds, which Fox never did. Otherwise, audits are conducted only when there are red flags, such as no activity in the account from a candidate who is raising money, or a complaint, Thornton said.

While state law allows candidates to act as their own campaign treasurer, most candidates with campaigns of Fox’s size do not.

“Just because you’re allowed to do it, doesn’t mean that you should,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause, noting that hundreds of thousands of dollars would have flowed through Fox’s campaign accounts.

Marion said state employees often do campaign work for political candidates.

Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, said such an arrangement is “ripe for problems.”

“When you’re your own treasurer and the person who is doing your books, you’re their boss, there’s actually no check on the activities of the campaign,” she said.

While most states do not do regular audits of campaign accounts, some, including Illinois or Ohio do.

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