Blog — Campaign Finance Reform

October 23, 2015

Congressman Fined for Failing to Disclose $50K; Why Did No One Notice?

By Katherine Duncan

During all the hoopla over big money’s role in the 2016 presidential election, smaller stories that demonstrate the nitty gritty of campaign finance tend to fly under the radar. Take the case of Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ).

In August, freshman Congressman Gallego’s campaign committee settled with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) for $2,000, following a complaint from the FEC’s Alternative Dispute Resolution office accusing the Gallego for Arizona campaign of incomplete filing.

Though Gallego’s campaign doesn’t appear to have purposefully concealed the nearly $53,317 in spending it omitted from its initial filing, this is a troubling amount to have overlooked—an oversight underscoring money’s outsized role in politics and the difficulty in tracking it. This is around the average American household’s annual income. That’s a lot of money to spend and then not report.

Even seemingly innocuous disclosure errors like the Gallego campaign’s are noteworthy precisely because of their banality. Only one small, local Arizona news outlet covered this story—a brief blip on the radar that went mostly unnoticed. When a $50,000 “administrative error” is not newsworthy, that alone is discomfiting, regardless of whether or not the disclosure lapse was intentional. This is a sizable sum for a freshman congressman’s campaign to toss around and then forget.

Despite $2,000 being a small fine compared to the $375,000 the Obama campaign had to pay in 2013, it is nonetheless important because of how much money was mistakenly omitted from the report—a staggering majority of the Gallego campaign’s expenditures for the filing period. 

What’s also striking is that most of the missing disbursements—detailed in three amendments to the initial FEC filing—were donations from the Gallego campaign to other Democratic House candidates. To be clear, the Gallego campaign realized their reporting mistake and followed their initial October filing with an updated one two months later listing the additional spending, but lacking proper details. The large increase in spending between the two reports is what led to the FEC’s initial Request for Additional Information and then, ultimately, to the complaint against Gallego’s campaign for failure to disclose all financial activity. Hopefully, fellow politicians will take note and not make the same mistake.

Although Gallego’s campaign expenditure omission appears to have been unintentional, the FEC’s swift action in addressing and resolving the issue is a welcome, necessary move that sets an appropriate transparency standard for campaign finance disclosure. The FEC, however, is not itself without fault, as CREW has previously noted in lawsuits and comments we’ve filed suggesting ways the organization can strengthen its campaign finance regulations.

In addition, as the New York Times reported earlier this year, FEC campaign fines are at a record low—not necessarily because of universal compliance—but because of potential lax enforcement and organizational dysfunction resulting from partisan gridlock. Even FEC Chairwoman Ann M. Ravel admits that “[t]he likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,” that she “never want[s] to give up, but [is] not under any illusions…. the FEC is … worse than dysfunctional.”

This is unacceptable. When the FEC can’t even carry out its own duties, there is a whole lot that has to change.  Until the FEC gets its house in order, there’s little hope for keeping candidates on the straight and narrow.

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