- Associated Press - Monday, April 6, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Nearly 300 ex-candidates and political action committees collectively owe the state $2.2 million in fines for not filing campaign finance reports on time.

The Associated Press examined a newly released Rhode Island Board of Elections report on outstanding fines. Former state senators Patrick McDonald and John Celona head the list of offenders, and current Providence City Council president Luis Aponte rounds out the top 10.

McDonald, who is in jail for embezzlement, owes $213,000. His lawyer did not comment.

Celona owes nearly $176,000. He was sentenced in 2007 in a corruption case and has since been released. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Aponte, the city council president, owes about $48,000. He also did not respond to a request for comment.

A “significant amount” of the fines may be uncollectable, according to Richard Thornton, the election board’s campaign finance director. In 2014, the board collected about $43,000 in fines for late reports.

Now, some lawmakers are pushing for legislation that would stop people who owe fines and reports from running for office again until the reports are filed and the fines are paid.

Rep. Helio Melo said he introduced the bill because he’s frustrated that so many people have a “total disregard” for the rules for running for office. State Sen. Daniel Da Ponte, who introduced a similar bill in the Senate, said there should be consequences for people who “snub the process.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island says the General Assembly cannot override the standards for running for office set by the state constitution.

The bills are being considered in committee.

On the board’s list of fines due as of March 31, former candidates for local offices - Peter Russo Jr., Michael Rollins, David DeAngelis, Mark Plympton, Robert Faria and Melanie Turner - as well as former General Assembly candidate Daniel Grzych, make up the rest of the top 10.

Most could not be reached for comment.

Rollins, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Rhode Island, lost an election for North Providence’s council in 2004. He said he has had a “feud” with the Board of Elections ever since. Rollins said he was told he could only get a two- or three-day extension to file the required reports after there was a fire at his condominium complex, and decided to protest by refusing to file.

Rollins, who also lost an election for the state Senate in 2012, said he has been waiting for the elections board to sue him, and may sue the board for malicious persecution. He now owes nearly $172,000, the fourth highest on the list.

The board has sued to collect fines, but only in a few of the most egregious cases.

It assesses a $25 fine when a report is late, then another $2 per day until the report is filed. The fines can be appealed.

Last week, the board waived nearly $18,000 in accumulated late filing penalties and fees assessed to the Real Equality and Progress for RI PAC.

The PAC argued it had been inactive since 2008 and hadn’t received the board’s non-compliance notices, Thornton said. The committee filed its past due reports this year and asked for the penalties to be waived.

“Our primary mission is to get compliance with the filings. The public has a right to know how candidates are raising and spending their money,” Thornton said. “Our primary mission is not to collect fines.”

Of the 288 names on the board’s list, 37 have only been fined $25.

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