JACKSON • Mississippi politicians and candidates are required by law to file campaign finance reports, which reveal who is giving them money and how they are spending it – but many of them aren’t doing it.

In hundreds of cases since 2018, state-level candidates and elected officials ignored or overlooked this basic transparency requirement. And the vast majority of the time they didn’t pay their fines, which ranged from $50 to $500.

The Daily Journal analyzed a list of hundreds of people who did not file at least one campaign finance report on time, or at all. Kept by the Mississippi Ethics Commission, the spreadsheet dates back to the start of 2018, when a new campaign finance reform law took effect.

Since 2018, unpaid campaign finance fines outnumber paid ones nearly three-to-one. That adds up to real money: State politicians and candidates have stiffed the state out of nearly $150,000 by either refusing to pay their fine or not realizing one had been levied.

Only about $30,000 worth of fines were paid – or waived due to valid excuse – over the three years.

Campaign finance law leaves gap in enforcement

It appears dozens of officials and candidates never filed their delinquent campaign finance report at all after being fined, though the exact number is unclear.

The Ethics Commission issues the fines, but it has not closely tracked who does and doesn’t eventually file their reports, Executive Director Tom Hood said.

A different agency, the Secretary of State’s Office, collects the reports, leading to a confusing process with several apparent gaps in enforcement.

Hood said he’s not sure why so many Mississippi candidates and officials aren’t paying their fines.

“We get responses that range from, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, here’s my check,’ to this guy who was calling us a few weeks ago and cursing at my coworkers, accusing us of being part of some conspiracy, saying he didn’t know (about the fine), and wasn’t going to pay it, to no response at all,” Hood said. “A lot of them, there’s no response at all.”

Northeast Mississippi candidates owe thousands

The following officials and former candidates from Northeast Mississippi owe fines for failing to file campaign finance reports, according to the Mississippi Ethics Commission

Trey Bowman: $500

Kegan Coleman: $1,000

Scott Colom: $50

Andre’ De’Berry: $1,000

John Faulkner: $1,100

Rodney Faver: $200

Kevin Frye: $150

Paul Funderburk: $100

Steve Holland: $500

Kelly Luther: $50

Carlton Smith: $500

Mike Tagert: $150

The Daily Journal identified 13 people from Northeast Mississippi who recently had outstanding campaign finance fines. Several claimed they had not received a fine letter. Others said they had since paid up.

“This is brand new to me,” Kegan Coleman, a resident of Calhoun City and a former Democratic candidate for the District 8 Senate seat, said of $1,000 in fines for two missing campaign finance reports. “We will give the Ethics Commission a call to discuss this.”

“I have moved recently,” said Trey Bowman, a resident of Ackerman and a former Republican candidate for Northern District Transportation Commissioner, who was fined $500 for a missing 2019 report. “I’m not saying they didn’t send it to me, but it could have been lost in the move.”

Rep. Sam Creekmore, R-New Albany, was fined $100 for a late report but said he should not be on the list because he has since paid it.

Kevin Frye, a resident of Oxford and a former Democratic candidate in the District 9 Senate seat, said he’d also recently paid the commission $150 for not filing his 2020 annual campaign report on time. Frye apologized to the citizens of the state for filing the report late, and encouraged the Legislature to use his $150 fine to invest in issues like early childhood education.

State reminds candidates to file before fines start

Mississippi law requires candidates and current elected officials to file annual reports detailing their fundraising and spending. And during election years, there are more frequent reporting requirements, to provide transparency and accountability around who is giving and spending cash as races heat up.

The law provides for some wiggle room, and reminders, for people to file their reports. Within five days of a reporting deadline, the Secretary of State’s Office compiles a list of those who have not filed, notifies them of their failure, and sends the list to the Ethics Commission.

But Scott Colom, who owes $50 according to the Ethics Commission’s records, said candidate reminders were handled differently when now-Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann was the Secretary of State.

Under Hosemann, Colom remembers receiving emails from the SOS’s office reminding him to file a campaign finance form before a fine would be assessed against him.

“I don’t remember getting an email this time,” Colom, the district attorney for the state’s 16th district said.

Regardless of the method of communication under current Secretary of State Michael Watson’s office, Colom said he will pay the fine if he does owe one.

The Ethics Commission only starts issuing fines on the 10th day after the report is due. Each additional day a report is late costs another $50, up to a maximum of $500. The commission can waive a fine if the person couldn’t file due to a severe health issue or similar unforeseeable problem. Fine payments are deposited into the state’s general fund.

State agencies not communicating about missing reports, collecting fines

What happens if someone doesn’t pay, doesn’t file their report, or both? Not much.

The Ethics Commission is supposed to send the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office a list of people who have not paid their fines after 120 days, and the AG can file a lawsuit “to compel payment,” according to the law.

Since 2018, unpaid campaign finance fines outnumber paid ones nearly three-to-one. That adds up to real money: State politicians and candidates have stiffed the state out of nearly $150,000 by either refusing to pay their fine or not realizing one had been levied.

But AG spokeswoman Colby Jordan said her office could not find any record of such referrals from the Ethics Commission. Hood said it had been at least a couple years since he sent the list of people who hadn’t paid, and he wasn’t sure if his office had ever sent one.

Hood said the list wasn’t sent to the AG recently because the Ethics Commission had voted to delay fining people for campaign finance violations during the pandemic. Fine letters from 2019 and 2020 were sent out in mid-May.

State law also says a candidate, if they win, can’t take office until they file all their campaign finance reports. But Secretary of State officials said they could not find an instance, including under past administrations, where a candidate wasn’t certified to take office because of their failure to file a report.

Hood said it’s not the Ethics Commission’s job to prevent someone from taking office because they didn’t file a campaign finance report, suggesting that would be the Secretary of State’s role.

“I just don’t think we should be jumping off and telling people what to do if we don’t know we have the authority to do it,” Hood said. “If we send a letter to somebody saying, ‘You can’t take office,’ well then we need to be able to back that up with the authority to stop them from taking office.”

Officials: Weak campaign finance law at

heart of problem

It all adds up to a Mississippi campaign finance law that needs some work, Hood said. More electronic report filing would help, he said, as would a clearer delineation of duties between the Ethics Commission and Secretary of State, plus more clarity on how the law should be enforced.

“Whatever the Legislature wants us to do, that’s fine; we’ll do whatever they want us to do,” Hood said. “But what we do and how we do it needs to be clear, and it’s not right now.”

The Secretary of State’s Office also acknowledged changes are needed in the law.

“Ironing out the statutes regarding deadlines, consequences, and the specific duties of the state agencies involved would help us hold candidates and political committees more accountable and streamline the overall process,” spokeswoman Kendra James wrote in a statement.

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