- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - When candidates file campaign finance reports with the state, elections officials essentially take them at their word that the records are accurate.

Now that ex-House Speaker Gordon Fox has pleaded guilty to exploiting weaknesses in that honor system, some lawmakers say a candidate’s word is no longer enough.

House leaders plan to introduce a bill to require candidates to file bank statements for their campaign accounts with their campaign finance reports, said Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Fox’s successor.

The elections board knows what the bank balance should be, but not what it actually is, he said.

Fox, once considered among the most powerful politicians in the state, acknowledged making dozens of interbank transfers totaling $108,000, taking the money from his campaign account and using it for personal expenses. He overstated his campaign account’s balance on campaign finance filings to hide his actions.

“If there was a document to reconcile his campaign finance reports against, it would’ve been detected much quicker,” said Mattiello, a Democrat.

Fox pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges of bribery, wire fraud and filing a false tax return. He also acknowledged receiving a $52,500 bribe in cash and checks in 2008 to help grant a liquor license to a bar near Brown University when he served as vice chairman of the board of licenses for Providence.

Mattiello said the General Assembly needs to take a comprehensive look at campaign finance reform, but that it’s important to have an immediate response.

House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, a Republican, said the proposed requirement for bank statements is a good idea, but the details will have to be looked at closely.

Currently, candidates sign an affidavit certifying that they will comply with campaign finance law when they register with the elections board. Bank statements, copies of checks and other documents are generally only requested during an audit, Richard Thornton, director of campaign finance for the state Board of Elections, said Wednesday.

The bank statements are a missing piece of the puzzle, Thornton added.

“It certainly would give us, and the public, more confidence in the filings,” he said.

The elections board is proposing legislation that would require nearly all candidates to establish a separate bank account for campaign contributions, and not comingle them with personal funds. Thorton said he strongly advises candidates to have dedicated campaign accounts, but there’s nothing to enforce compliance at this point.

The open government group Common Cause wants lawmakers to require routine audits of campaign finance reports and provide the necessary resources for the elections board to conduct those audits. Audits are conducted now, but only when there are red flags.

About 900 campaign finance reports are filed quarterly in a non-election year. When an election nears, that number doubles. Thorton and another board staff member, who also has other duties, conduct the audits.

Common Cause also supports restoring the full jurisdiction of the state Ethics Commission over the General Assembly.

Several lawmakers said the campaign finance system should be reformed, to make state government more transparent.

“Unfortunately I think our current events point to a need,” Democratic Rep. Edith Ajello said.

Democratic Rep. Joy Hearn said the Fox case is an “embarrassment.”

“It just makes us look a little tainted and it’s not right,” she said, adding that the more rigorous the campaign finance system is, the more honest it will be.

Democratic Sen. Donna Nesselbush said, “Shining the light of day on campaign finance is hugely important to American government, and state government.”

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