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Senators Erroneously Receive Threatening Letters After Agency's Snafu

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LINDSEY GRAHAM
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 07: Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., talks with reporters in the Capitol during a vote in which the Senate passed cloture on a motion to proceed on a bill that would expand unemployment benefits for three months. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) | Tom Williams via Getty Images

By Dave Levinthal, Center for Public Integrity

The Federal Election Commission has issued 21 U.S. Senate candidates — both Democratic and Republican — threatening letters that question why they didn't file their latest round of campaign reports.

"Failure to timely file this report may result in civil money penalties, an audit or other legal enforcement action," read the letters, dated April 22.

Just one problem: The FEC got it wrong.

It's a snafu even political opponents can agree on.

"We filed. It's got to be an error on the FEC's part," Jeff DiSantis, campaign manager for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn of Georgia, told the Center for Public Integrity.

"We definitely filed the report — no question," said Chris Crawford, spokesman for Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., who's running for the same seat and finds himself amid a crowded Republican primary field.

Same story for Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

"We mailed our report on time, and there is no issue on our end," Graham campaign spokesman Tate Zeigler said.

Other prominent U.S. senators and Senate candidates who received failure-to-file letters from the FEC include Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.; Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.; Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.; Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga.; Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.; Republican Karen Handel of Georgia and Republican Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

Several volunteered tracking codes and confirmation receipts as proof they complied.

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The situation also highlights the byzantine manner in which Senate candidates — and only Senate candidates — file their campaign finance reports in the first place.

First, they print out paper copies their reports.

Next, they mail or hand deliver these paper copies to the Office of the Secretary of the Senate for processing.

Then, the Secretary of the Senate transfers the paper copies from Capitol Hill over to the FEC, which, in turn, ships them to a contractor for digital conversion.

When this conversion is complete, the FEC posts the data on its website, which can occur days or weeks after a filing deadline. (Filings by presidential and House candidates, as well as political action committees, appear online instantaneously.)

The Senate's tortured data dance costs taxpayers about $500,000 annually, and the FEC's six commissioners — a typically fractious group — unanimously recommended to Congress in December that Senate candidates begin filing campaign disclosures digitally.

The FEC explained in a statement that the Secretary of the Senate informed the agency that 37 Senate committees had not filed their first-quarter campaign reports by the April 15 deadline. The FEC, which enforces campaign finance laws, learned from the Secretary of the Senate late Tuesday that 21 of those committees had indeed met the deadline — just as it was readying to send delinquent committees warning notices.

The FEC says those 21 notices were posted to its website but pulled from its email queue. At least some received them, however, as several committees that apparently shouldn't have received letters confirm they did.

Transparency advocates note that that Congress' upper chamber could easily avoid this kind of filing problem.

"If the Senate would enter the 21st century and file their campaign contribution reports electronically like House and presidential candidates do, we wouldn't have this problem," said Lisa Rosenberg, a lobbyist for the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for greater government transparency.

Forty senators — mostly Democrats, but also six Republicans and two independents — have signed on to the latest incarnation of the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, which would require e-filing. But the Senate has yet to schedule it for a vote.

And while 21 senators voluntarily e-filed their campaign finance reports this month, the FEC doesn't consider those filings official.

They must submit paper copies to be considered in compliance with federal law.

Related story: How Washington starves its election watchdog

More stories in the Primary Source blog from the Center for Public Integrity

This story was originally published by The Center for Public Integrity, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

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