‘Backlog’ at state level allows elected officials to violate campaign rules with impunity

Campaign finance violation accusations

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Hundreds of candidates and elected officials in local office have been able to violate campaign rules without ever being penalized by the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

A WBTV Investigation uncovered a “backlog” in the NCSBE system that allowed local candidates to file disclosure reports late or not at all and never have their committees terminated.

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles and Councilmen Tariq Bokhari and James Mitchell are just some of the candidates who have been late filing reports and not had their committees terminated by NCSBE.

Candidates running for local office such as mayor, council or commission file disclosure reports on their donations and disbursements to their local county board of elections. However, it is NCSBE’s job to penalize committees for not filing on time.

“If the county for whatever reason does not receive a campaign finance report on time, or doesn’t receive one at all, they send us a letter that certifies which campaigns have not complied with statutory time frame,” NCSBE spokesman Pat Gannon said.

But those letters sent by county boards have not accomplished much according to records obtained by WBTV.

Councilman Tariq Bokhari had not filed two disclosure reports documenting his committee during 2018. The 2018 Mid-Year Semi Annual Report was due July 27, 2018 but was not submitted until May 15, 2019 after WBTV started asking if it was ever turned in.

Mecklenburg County Board of Elections produced two letters to WBTV showing it notified NCSBE of the delinquent filings. NCSBE records also show that Bokhari was sent a letter notifying him that his committee would be terminated 20 days from April 11 if the report was not submitted.

But his committee was never terminated. In fact, no local committees have been terminated by NCSBE since January 1, 2017.

“We have a backlog of penalty assessments we also have a backlog of termination of active status for local committees,” Gannon said.

The backlog allows candidates to fundraise and spend money when they otherwise wouldn’t be allowed to because the committee would be terminated.

“They should be, in a perfect world, getting penalty notice and getting terminated and not be able to campaign,” Gannon said.

Gannon says NCSBE is working to address the backlog by working with county board of elections.

“We’re updating guidance to the counties for how this process should work, we’re trying to make it simpler for them but also have them provide us more information,” Gannon said.

But he said the NCSBE also must fix its problems with that kept them from penalizing local committees. While no committees filing with county boards has been terminated since January 2017 Gannon said 143 committees that file at the state level have been terminated since then.

“We were working on this months ago to try and establish new procedures and a more efficient way to stay on top of these things. You can quickly behind if you’re not always on top of it,” Gannon said.

Councilman Tariq Bokhari declined to comment for this story.

The campaign committee for Mayor Vi Lyles was two months late in turning in its most recent disclosure report. The campaign manager for the committee told WBTV that the committee was in the process of changing treasurers when the disclosure report was due. NCSBE does not permit delayed report submissions based on outside factors. (NOTE: Documentation in the on-air story shows Ann White was the treasurer for the Friends for Lyles committee. White submitted notice to the Board of Elections on September 4, 2018 that she was no longer in that role for the committee. However, the Lyles committee did not amend its treasurer information until Jul 8, 2019.)

The Committee to Elect James Mitchell never submitted a 2016 Year-End Semi-Annual Report according to the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections. It is unclear of the committee ever paid fines levied by NCSBE.

However in July 2017 a new committee was formed called ‘Friends of James Mitchell.’ WBTV asked Mitchell if the fines were ever paid on his old committee and he said he wasn’t sure because he lets someone else handle the campaign finance disclosures. He also said he didn’t fund-raise in 2016. The NCSBE requires disclosure reports as long as a committee is active.

Mitchell says he did not create the new committee to avoid fines or termination related to his old committee.

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