The state needs to straighten out serious inconsistencies in how it handles election expense disclosure statements before trying to impose fines on violators in the future, according to Ethics Commission Director Ken Rohrs.
"Financial disclosures are a great idea," he said. "It's just not as simple as we thought it would be."
The Ethics Commission voted last week to forgive nearly all of the $247,000 in fines owed by candidates who didn't file financial disclosure statements, filed them late or otherwise erred. The commission agreed there are too many problems with the existing law and too many errors on the commission's part.
Rohrs said that means those who did pay the fines, including Carson resident and controller candidate Wally Earhart, will get their money back. Earhart paid his $3,750 fine in $100 bills and said Friday he would "really appreciate getting the money back."
Rohrs is still figuring out how many refunds the commission needs to make and to whom.
Rohrs said there is only one candidate from 1998 - for a minor board - who still hasn't filed his disclosure statement. The candidate maintains he did so with Washoe County, thinking that was the correct place.
Rohrs said his office and the commission will fix the inconsistencies in existing rules, but that some of the problems will require action by the 2001 Legislature. He said they hope to bring a list of improvements to lawmakers designed to ensure proper disclosure but without some of the problems in the existing system.
For example, he said, there is no proof many candidates ever received notice of the disclosure requirements.
In more than a few cases, candidates filed the paperwork but it was dated and arrived before Jan. 1, 1998. Technically, that meant those public officials failed to file in 1998 and the law says they should be fined.
A couple of candidates filed papers for one office, but were then named to another and didn't know they needed to file again. That requirement caught Las Vegas Judge Nancy Saitta, who filed for re-election to municipal court then, about a month later, filed for district judge. Rohrs said she didn't know she had to refile her ethics paperwork.
Rohrs said in several cases, the commission's disclosure statement was wrong, requiring everyone named to finish an unexpired term to file with the commission in 30 days.
"That's not the law," he said, pointing out that current law applies to only those filling out elective terms, not appointed positions.
Rohrs also said there is still confusion about what a public official is and who must file.
And there was one candidate fined $3,375 when the fine should have been just $375. "Why that happened, we don't know."
"There are also extenuating circumstances," he said, citing those who didn't file on time because they were ill or a family member was ill.
"And a big problem from my perspective was that no cap was set on how long we were going to run the meter on these people," he said. "If you run the meter forever, you'd have an unbelievable amount of money due, but that's not realistic."
"We're trying to make sure the process is one that encourages people to file their financial disclosure statements," he said. "The idea isn't to trick people."