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FEC Lightens Up on Late Campaign Finance Filers

Giving low-dollar campaigns a break, federal election regulators on Thursday lowered the fines for those that fail to file fund-raising reports.

The Federal Election Commission scaled back civil penalties for political committees that raise less than $50,000 and file their FEC reports late or not at all. The six-member commission approved the change unanimously.

The commission found its administrative fines program included many candidates who lost elections or were otherwise winding down their campaigns and were having a hard time raising money to pay the fines, FEC spokesman Bob Biersack said. Campaign treasurers -- many of them volunteers -- are personally responsible for paying the fines, he said.

The commission had considered lowering civil penalties across the board for campaigns and other political committees that missed report filing deadlines, but decided against it.

"It has been an effective program and caused people to file on a more timely basis without a lot of resources devoted to it," Biersack said.

The FEC calculates fines for late filers based on how much the committee raised and spent, with additional charges for each day a report is late and for repeat offenders.

The commission's new approach lowers civil penalties substantially for low-dollar political committees.

For example, for those who raise less than $5,000 and fail to file reports due several months before or after an election, the per-day charge will be reduced from $25 to $5 for every day the report is late, with the base penalty lowered from $100 to $25.

The commission's decision drew praise from Donald Hess, a retired airline pilot threatened with a fine after he failed to file a campaign finance report for Draft McCain 2000, a short-lived committee that had barely started before Arizona Sen. John McCain withdrew from the race for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination.

Hess had to loan money to the political action committee to help cover its roughly $870 in overhead, and thought that because the PAC raised and spent so little, he didn't have to file a report with the commission.

The commission informed him otherwise and threatened to fine him about $900 for failing to file. After about three months of writing letters to the commission and telephoning various staff members, Hess persuaded the panel that he hadn't intentionally ignored FEC rules, and it decided against fining him.

"If they're lowering the fines for that sort of thing, I think it's pretty constructive," said Hess, of Newport Beach, Calif. "If I had had to pay that fine, I never would have gotten engaged in politics again. I would never have exposed myself to that kind of financial risk again."