Vines fined $2,100 for missing deadline to report campaign finances

Published 3:20 pm Thursday, November 3, 2022

Isle of Wight County’s Voter Registrar’s Office has fined School Board candidate Michael Vines $2,100 for missing multiple deadlines for reporting his campaign finances to the state.

Vines, who’s running against Jason Maresh for the District 4 seat, reported a cumulative $100 in campaign contributions and no expenses for Jan. 1 through Aug. 31 on the forms local candidates are required to periodically file with the Virginia Department of Elections.

Vines filed three reports on Sept. 7, one for June 6-9, one for June 10-30 and one for July 1 through Aug. 31. The June 6-9 report was due June 13. The June 10-30 report was due July 15.

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No report of Vines’ contributions and expenses for Sept. 1-30 or for Oct. 1-27 was listed on the Department of Elections website as of Nov. 3, though the Sept. 1-30 report was due Oct. 17 and the Oct. 1-27 report was due on Oct. 31.

Under Virginia Code 24.2-953.1 through 953.3, the penalty for “failure to file” or “late filing” is “a civil penalty” of up to $500, and up to $1,000 for any subsequent violation.

A 2020 Virginia Department of Elections document titled “Summary of Laws and Policies – Candidate Campaign Committees” specifies a fine of $100 for one to 15 days delinquency, $200 for 16-30 days, $300 for 31-45 days, $400 for 46-60 days and $500 for 61 or more days.

An Oct. 27 letter to Vines from Chief Deputy Registrar Susan Saunders lists a $100 fine for missing the June 13 deadline, another $1,000 for missing the July 15 deadline, and a second $1,000 fine for not submitting any Sept. 1-30 report by Oct. 17.

The Smithfield Times had requested the letter under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act on Oct. 31, and was provided a copy on Nov. 4.

Prior to that, Isle of Wight County voter registrar’s staff had confirmed at a Nov. 2 meeting of the county’s Electoral Board that they had sent a letter, but did not name the candidate. County Registrar Lisa Betterton did, however, note only one of the 14 candidates running for local offices in the Nov. 8 election had missed any filing deadlines.

All School Board candidates except Vines filed their finance reports on time, according to data available on the Department of Elections website. Town Council candidates in towns with fewer than 25,000 residents – including Smithfield and Windsor – are exempt by state law from having to file campaign finance reports.

According to the Department of Elections, the $100 initial penalty is to be “automatically imposed after the conclusion of the report’s filing deadline.” Notifying the candidate is the responsibility of the “Department of Elections or the local general registrar.”

If payment is not received within 60 days, the matter is to be referred to the county’s commonwealth’s attorney for collection. Notifying the commonwealth’s attorney is the “duty of the general registrar” in cases where a violation relates to “campaign finance reports required to be filed with the general registrar.”

But according to Betterton, it’s been years since any county-level candidates have had to turn in campaign finance forms to her office. Now candidates use an internet-based system known as COMET to send their financial data directly to the Department of Elections.

“We’re kind of out of the loop to a certain extent,” Betterton said.

“Incomplete reports” carry the same $500 penalty, with some exceptions, but require the commissioner of elections or local registrar to notify the candidate by certified mail and provide a 10-day window to correct any omissions prior to assessing the specified fine.

“There’s a lot of seriously contradictory information in these rules, and it’s not clear whether it’s the responsibility of the state or the general registrar,” added Electoral Board Secretary Geoff McFather.

Department of Elections spokeswoman Andrea Gaines told the Times via email on Nov. 2 that it does indeed fall to the local registrar to notify the candidate and  impose one of the fines listed in the state code.

COMET, Gaines said, came online in 2012.

“Local general registrars are still responsible for reviewing their local candidates’ reports for completeness and accuracy,” Gaines said. “General registrars are responsible for issuing penalties against local candidates for failures to file and late filing of required campaign finance reports.”

Even if it is the registrar’s responsibility, the Electoral Board “can’t do anything to enforce any of this,” board Chairwoman Inetha Holmes said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with information from the Registrar’s Office’s Oct. 27 letter to Vines, which The Smithfield Times requested under FOIA on Oct. 31 and received Nov. 4.