This story was originally published online at Carolina Public Press.
Mayor of Durham Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton did not file any campaign finance returns required by law in the last cycle, according to Durham County Board of Elections documents.
“I had a treasurer’s bond on me, and I didn’t collect any money,” Middleton said when initially asked about the missing 2021 documents. “I literally didn’t collect any money during of the last campaign, and we will be in compliance very soon.”
In an email Thursday afternoon, Middleton said someone he thought would be his treasurer was unable to do so as the deadline approached, so he served as his own treasurer. .
“My latest campaign finance reports are first and foremost a failure on my part,” he wrote.
Middleton said he intended to file the required documents to show that he had received no input from “any individual, corporate interest or issue advocacy group”, and he incurred personal expenses of approximately $2,220 on behalf of the campaign for his filing fees and court signs.
“I did not hire any workers and did not organize any fundraisers,” he wrote. He said the reports would be tabled in the coming days.
Candidates for municipal office who raise or spend less than $1,000 may be exempt from filing under the law, but the candidate’s treasurer must still file certification that the campaign does not intend to spend, borrow or raise more than $1,000.
Middleton did not file that certification, according to Durham County Board of Elections deputy director Brenda Baker.
However, since he now says he spent more than $2,000, he appears to have exceeded the $1,000 limit and should follow the law’s broader filing requirements.
Middleton’s campaign was made aware of the overdue filing issues and sanctions in January and February, according to council documents. Candidates for municipal office are required by state law to file reports with their local election commission, even if they do not raise any funds.
Publicly available campaign finance documents provide transparency on who is contributing to campaigns and how campaigns are spending those funds.
“It’s critical for us to be able to hold our elected officials accountable and know where their bread is buttered,” said Chris Cooper, professor of political science at Western Carolina University.
Middleton, founder and pastor of the Abundant Hope Christian Church, first stood to represent Ward 2 Durham on City Council in 2017, beating John Rooks Jr. His 2017 campaign committee, Middleton 4 Durham, filed reports in this cycle, according to the Durham County Board of Elections website.
He served as his campaign treasurer in 2017, which is allowed by state law. In the last filing of the 2017 cycle, Middleton said he raised $7,798.39 and spent about $3,800 on signage, t-shirts and Facebook advertising.
In the 2021 cycle, Middleton faced a re-election challenge from Sylvester Williams. Middleton did not file a report in the fall, prompting the Board of Elections to issue two notices of non-compliance.
The first, sent in January, said the 2021 pre-primary report was not filed on time and under state law the fine is $50 per day, not to exceed $500. The second letter, sent in February, said the pre-election report was also not filed on time and that the board imposed an additional penalty of $500.
The fees are paid to the state, according to Baker. No penalty was paid, according to North Carolina State Board of Elections spokesman Pat Gannon.
State law gives candidates 20 days from the issuance of the pre-election advisory letters and 30 days from the issuance of the pre-election advisory letters to remedy the issue. If the reports are not filed within these deadlines, the active status of the campaign committee is terminated, the letters warn.
“This status renders the committee ineligible to receive or make contributions until the committee has filed the overdue campaign financial return and satisfied any late filing penalties incurred,” according to state law.
If a candidate does not file the returns, the local council notifies the State Board of Elections, Baker said. Delinquency reports from the 2021 cycle, including Middleton’s, have been sent to the state board, according to Baker.
“Mr. Middleton has contacted our office for a list of reports owed to him,” Baker said in an email.
In his email Thursday, Middleton said he would pay the fines with his own funds in the coming days.
Other Candidate Deposits in Durham
The campaign of Durham council member Leonardo Williams, a first-time candidate in Ward 3, was also late in filing timely reports last year. Williams’ campaign received a non-compliance notice for the 2021 pre-election report and a $500 fine notice in February.
“For any first-time applicant, it’s not the easiest process,” he said.
Members of his campaign team believed they had completed the paperwork correctly, he said. After learning of the overdue report, “we immediately dealt with it,” he said.
Williams filed the report in late April, according to Board of Elections documents. His campaign raised about $27,000, according to his campaign materials.
Durham council member DeDreana Freeman originally ran in the same 2017 cycle as Middleton, and she was re-elected last year. According to her latest campaign materials, she has raised nearly $40,000 for her 2021 re-election campaign.
Campaign finance at the municipal level is “something that people often overlook, but they shouldn’t,” Cooper said.
“If you’re a lobbyist or you’re an interest group and you want to influence the outcome of a campaign, your $1,000 will go a lot further in a city council election than in an election. federal or state,” he said.
State law also sets limits on who can donate to a campaign and sets a cap of $5,600 for individual contributors. Without reports, it is difficult to determine who, if anyone, is donating to a campaign.
While the law provides for enforcement of fines by the attorney general, the state council has not brought such actions in other cases, according to the report. WHQR.
“It’s a tough thing to enforce,” Cooper said, comparing it to enforcing the code in a city. “We know it’s illegal to have your grass above a certain height, but the work to get someone to pay the fine might not be worth it.”
The state board did not refer Middleton or Williams to the attorney general, Gannon said in an email.
“Routine referral of appraisals has not occurred in recent years, due to the costly and time-consuming nature of filing a lawsuit to recover campaign finance penalties, the vast majority of which involve amounts modest,” he wrote.
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