On fines for violations of TN campaign finance, lobbying laws going unpaid

The Registry of Election Finance and the Tennessee Ethics Commission have levied $730,000 in civil penalties since 2010, but collected just 21 percent of that total, reports The Tennessean.

The Registry, which oversees enforcement of campaign finance laws, has $356,125 in unpaid fines during the period while the Ethics Commission, which oversees enforcement of lobbying laws and the filing of conflict-of-interest disclosures, has $218,380 in unpaid penalties. (Note: A big chunk of the unpaid Registry penalties are from 2016, when the agency assessed $215,300 in fines with $172,275 unpaid as of last month, according to Registry figures.) If other unpaid penalties going back up to  26 years are added, the unpaid total reaches more than $1 million.

These findings underline what many Tennessee politicos already know: The public entities tasked with holding officials accountable have little, if any, teeth.

“I do think there’s a pretty compelling public interest in saying … we want a deterrent out there that people know, if this is going to happen, they’re going to be assessed a penalty that is going to be collected. It’s going to actually hit their bottom line, hit their pocket,” said Justin Pitt, a Franklin attorney and former member of the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

…Pitt, who served on the registry from 2010 to 2015, noted that those who do not pay fines are banned from running for office until the fines are paid. But for political action committees, or people with no plans to ever seek office again, he acknowledged an outstanding fine may serve as little recourse to stop inappropriate campaign activity.

At the same time, he suspects many of the fines outstanding would drop substantially if the registry and attorney general actually pursue them.

In an effort to collect unpaid penalties, state law allows the registry to get assistance from the attorney general. A recently released annual report by the registry found that since 2008, about 66 percent of the penalties assessed have been collected or payments have been made.

Note: The referenced Registry report stating that 66 percent of penalties have been paid since 2008 also says “the percentage of civil penalties paid on 2016 assessments will increase as the penalties become final and are turned over to the State Attorney General for collection.”

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