WESTERLY, R.I. (WPRI) – Mark Sullivan decided in 2012 he wanted to run for Westerly School Committee, so he filed paperwork with the town and sent campaign finance forms to the R.I. Board of Elections.
But the next day he changed his mind after receiving a job offer in Connecticut, putting an end to his daylong political career.
“I didn’t go to the candidate’s night at the Town Council or any of that stuff. I just didn’t play,” Sullivan said.
Fast forward seven years, however, and Sullivan’s name still appears on a list of 143 politicians and political groups that – as of September – owed a combined $3.8 million in outstanding fines to the state elections board. The amount owed has more than tripled since 2011 when the state started publicly posting the fines.
The board, meanwhile, collected $28,311 in fines last year. The money is transferred to the state’s general fund.
Sullivan, who claims he raised and spent zero dollars on his campaign, said he filed the necessary paperwork to close out his account, but nonetheless received fines for failing to do so. The Board of Elections contests his story, saying Sullivan didn’t file anything after losing in a primary, so the board started charging him $2 per day fine after notifying him twice through the mail.
Regardless, the fines associated with Sullivan’s campaign started to balloon.
“It started off as a few hundred bucks, then it was $1,000, then it was maybe $3,000 or $4,000, and over time since 2012 I’ve amassed a fine of over $44,000,” he said.
Sullivan’s story is like those of dozens of other politicians who owe thousands of dollars to the Board of Elections. The board’s list of scofflaws includes many people that most Rhode Islanders wouldn’t recognize in politics.
But it also includes notorious politicians who have run into money trouble in the past, including state Sen. Patrick McDonald, a Narragansett Democrat who was convicted in 2014 of embezzlement and conspiracy. He was sentenced to serve 20 years of prison time and probation and owes the most fines — $400,183 — to the state elections board.
Former Providence City Council president Luis Aponte, who was convicted of embezzlement earlier this year, owes $50,971. The capital city is holding a special election today to replace him on the city council.
Former state Sen. John Celona, who served prison time for a pay-to-play scheme, asked for help from the board in 2015 when he owed about $178,000. He’s since paid about $20 per week for several years, but his fines have nonetheless increased to more than $385,000 due to $2 per day fines, along with other penalties.
For years, the Board of Elections hasn’t had much power over those who cannot or refuse to pay the fines, which has contributed to the growing total. For many, including Sullivan, there’s no plan to ever pay the amount owed, raising questions about what purpose the fines play to begin with.
“I didn’t spend any money, there was no campaign finance and it’s ridiculous that you’re going to go chasing people around,” Sullivan said.
The board, for its part, is trying to make changes to its system, and in recent months has started reducing and even eliminating the amount owed by politicians who come to appeal the fines.
“There have been a number of appeals that have gone before the board in the past quarter, which has resulted in a reduction or waiver of debt,” said Ric Thornton, director of campaign finance. “There have also been some appeals that were handled administratively by supervisory staff – accumulated fines of $5,000 or less – which resulted in a reduction or waiver of debt.”
The new approach has had a noticeable effect. The total amount of fines owed to the Board of Elections – which has long trended upward – declined $762,136 between June and September, representing a 17% decline. The board was scheduled to meet Thursday to consider at least four more appeals from people who owed money, according to a meeting agenda.
Thornton said the decision to be more forgiving has come in part become the board is wary of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which includes the following: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
“The board has been mindful of this when considering appeals from candidates for waivers or reductions of fines,” Thornton said.
In addition to the more forgiving approach, the board has also taken a new strategy with enforcement, creating a new relationship with the Central Collections Unit, a division of the R.I. Department of Revenue, to help it collect outstanding fines.
The newly formed unit could help the board go after some of the people who refuse to pay their fines, although it’s too early to measure its effectiveness. So far, the board has referred four cases to the unit, according to spokesman Paul Grimaldi.
The board’s newfound approach could mean changes in the process moving forward, but for those who have been caught in the process for a while – including Sullivan – it may not have an effect on how they view the way they’ve been treated.
Sullivan said he’s decided not to pay any money, even after his fines were reduced to less than $1,000 earlier this year. His nonpayment has caused them to jump back up to $1,500.
“At this stage of the game it’s frustrating and it’s personal for me now because I’ve had enough,” he said. “I feel at this point it’s harassment.”