Candidates Beware: Brush Up on Florida Campaign Finance Laws

By: Daniel J. Gerber and Suzanne Barto Hill

08.15.07

As the political campaign season heats up, the Florida Elections Commission (FEC) will be keeping a close watch for campaign violations, even in the smallest of campaigns - and “ignorance” of reporting obligations will not be tolerated. A local candidate recently learned this lesson the hard way when a Florida Court upheld a decision by the Florida Elections Commission finding a willful violation when the candidate failed to report the purchase of campaign signs by her husband using funds from their joint bank account.

Failure to accurately report campaign contributions is a violation of Florida’s campaign finance laws, and if willful, constitutes a first degree misdemeanor punishable by a fine, or worse, imprisonment. The FEC rejected the candidate’s argument that the purchase was an “independent expenditure” not subject to the reporting requirements. Florida law defines an “independent expenditure” as an expenditure that “is not controlled by, coordinated with, or made upon consultation with, any candidate . . . or agent of such candidate.” Here, the candidate’s husband was acting in furtherance of his wife’s campaign, was active in her campaign and bought the signs with their joint funds. These facts made clear that the husband was not making an independent expenditure, but was acting directly on behalf of his wife’s campaign.

The FEC also imposed a $1000 fine finding that the candidate’s violation was willful because she recklessly disregarded the campaign finance laws by failing to make a reasonable effort to determine what the law required. The Florida court agreed clarifying that whether it is a “big time” campaign or a modest campaign, candidates for public office must be familiar with the election laws. Here, the candidate did not show even minimal interest in ascertaining whether the yard signs constitute a contribution to her campaign. Noting that reporting campaign contributions “is the most basic requirement of the election laws”, the candidate was not free to complacently ignore the law with the expectation that her ignorance would excuse her non-compliance.

Florida law requires all candidates to sign a statement certifying that the candidate received, read and understands the campaign finance laws contained in Florida Statutes, Chapter 106. This provision also requires complete and accurate reports of all contributions received and expenditures made by or on behalf of any candidate or political committee. Florida Statute, Section 106.07 sets forth the requirements for such reports, and further requires that the candidate and his or her campaign treasurer certify the accuracy, completeness and veracity of each report filed.

If you are running for political office or have questions about Florida’s campaign finance laws, please contact Suzanne Hill at shill@rumberger.com or Dan Gerber at dgerber@rumberger.com or call the Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell attorney who regularly works with you.

Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell provides litigation and counseling services in a wide range of civil practice areas including products liability, commercial litigation, intellectual property, environmental, employment, insurance, professional liability, health care and administrative law. Offices are located in Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Tallahassee and Birmingham, Alabama. For more information, please visit our website at www.rumberger.com.

Source: Beardslee v. Florida Elections Commission, 32 Fla. L. Weekly D1917c (Fla. 5th DCA August 10, 2007)

 
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