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Mecklenburg County to tighten campaign finance audits

MAYOR FORUM
Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
Patrick Cannon

Mecklenburg County elections officials say they will tighten procedures for auditing campaign finance records following disclosures about incomplete reports.

Former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon, who now faces federal corruption charges, is among those who have filed reports that lack key information.

Last week, the Observer reported that omissions and inaccuracies on Cannon’s campaign records make it difficult to tell where he got much of his money. In about 100 cases since 2011, no job title was listed for donors to Cannon’s campaigns. In about 250 cases, no employer was listed.

Cannon is accused of accepting payments from undercover federal agents in exchange for promises to use his influence to help fictional businesses and development projects. A federal affidavit also says he solicited campaign donations from an undercover agent.

State law requires that candidates disclose the name, address, occupation and employer of any donor who gives at least $50. But Cannon isn’t the only local candidate who has filed reports lacking key information.

In an October 2013 campaign report for City Council member LaWana Mayfield, for instance, the box asking for the employer’s name is blank for all of the more than 40 contributors. The box asking for the job titles of donors is blank in all but one case.

Reached Monday, Mayfield said donors who made online contributions or mailed checks apparently didn’t provide information about their occupations and job titles.

She said she was unaware of the missing information until contacted by an Observer reporter. Now, she said, she plans to gather the information and file an amended report.

The Mecklenburg County Board of Elections says it will change its procedures in cases like these.

When candidates file reports that lack key information, the board will begin notifying each of them in writing, officials say. If candidates don’t respond within 30 days, the Mecklenburg board will send the information to the state elections board.

Mecklenburg board Chairwoman Mary Potter Summa said she hopes the new process will help educate candidates about filing requirements and encourage them to be more thorough.

“If there’s loosey-goosey stuff going on, we will tighten it up,” Summa said. “We can’t just assume (candidates) tried to get the information (about donors).”

Edwin Peacock, a Republican who lost the mayoral race to Cannon on Nov. 5, contended in interviews that the county elections office appeared to watch his financial filings more closely than Cannon’s.

Summa, a Republican, disputed that. “We have stressed that everyone is to be treated equally,” she said.

Bolstering state audits

The Mecklenburg board conducts routine audits for local races to ensure candidates don’t receive illegal donations, file late reports or fail to comply with other rules. But the county board has no enforcement power.

That falls to state election officials, who have authority to levy fines and force office seekers to surrender improper donations.

The state elections board is charged with looking into complaints for all state and local campaigns. It has two employees assigned to do investigations.

With an annual budget of $6 million, the agency is supposed to conduct routine audits on as many as 10,000 annual finance reports for state races. But officials said there is a 10-year backlog due to short staffing.

State Sen. Andrew Brock, a Davie County Republican who previously headed the committee that oversees the state elections board, said he plans to talk with other key lawmakers about getting the agency the money it needs to beef up audits and investigations.

“You want to get the bad (candidates) out of it,” he said. “The question is how to do that in the most cost-efficient way.”

The state elections board is now making technological improvements aimed at reducing the audit backlog. More staff would also help, officials say.

“We very much hope the legislature will look kindly on shoring up both campaign finance auditing and investigations,” said board spokesman Josh Lawson.

Alexander: 704-358-5060
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