Monday, April 06, 2009

The Sorriest Agency in Maryland

The Gazette reported last week that state prosecutors had filed charges against officers of 40 campaign committees for filing reports late. The prosecutors should instead be going after the State Board of Elections (SBE), one of Maryland’s most incompetent agencies.

As a civic activist, I’ve had to deal with a lot of state and local bureaucracies, including WMATA, Park and Planning, the Montgomery County Revenue Authority, the Department of Permitting Services, DPWT, the State Highway Administration, the police and more. None of them compares to SBE. I was first exposed to SBE’s ways after I was appointed Treasurer of the District 18 Democratic Team last summer. After we sent in the signed paperwork reporting my appointment, SBE never acknowledged it. In November, SBE sent a notice to our Chair and the former Treasurer pointing out mathematical errors in the reports filed by my predecessor. They gave me one month to fix them or be fined.

And so began my excruciating encounter with ELECTrack, SBE’s archaic reporting software. Correcting an old mistake is not a simple matter of changing an entry on a spreadsheet; each of the old reports had to be scrubbed and reset. I called SBE FIVE TIMES asking for help and electronic copies of our old records. Of course, I received no aid. I eventually had to reconstruct the entire history of our fund line-by-line and re-submit all of our reports with amendments to account for just one mathematical mistake.

Sensing trouble from the unresponsive bureaucracy, I hand-delivered the reports to SBE’s office in Annapolis so that I could get a stamped receipt. When I asked the clerk why our notices still went to the former Treasurer, she pointed to a stack of papers on her desk and said they had not entered them yet. So five months after my appointment, our paperwork sat gathering dust. I still do not receive any correspondence from SBE to this day. So when former Attorney General candidate Scott Rolle, one of the prosecutors’ targets, says that he filed his reports but there was a “computer glitch,” I am inclined to believe him.

Those “computer glitches” continue to hamper SBE. Despite a letter from four District 4 candidates calling for release of the special election campaign finance reports, unspecified “problems” have prevented SBE from posting reports due on March 24 for Rob Goldman, Robin Ficker, Chris Paladino and Lou August. (They posted Nancy Navarro’s report on Saturday – eleven days late.) So what was SBE doing while I was asking them to do their job? Their administrator, Linda Lamone, was testifying against campaign disclosure reform.

That’s right, SBE has targeted a local bill sponsored by Delegate Susan Lee (D-16) that would allow Montgomery County to require additional disclosure by campaign contributors above and beyond state law. The intent of the bill is to allow the county to identify “bundled” or related contributions, such as multiple checks from officers or employees of the same company, or firms that are related to each other. That’s a common tactic in Montgomery County, especially among developers, and we cited one example of it in our case study of race track owner William Rickman. Amazingly, SBE administrator Lamone told the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee last week that under the bill, “the public’s access to campaign finance reports would be fragmented and more challenging.” We reproduce Lamone’s testimony below.

The real reason SBE opposes Lee’s bill – which passed the House unanimously – is that they do not want to perform any more work. That’s typical of bureaucracies all over the world. But how credible are SBE’s claims when they are incapable of processing campaign finance reports from one special election which has just ten candidates? Who is holding this agency accountable for its performance?

And how badly will they perform on timely report access during the state and county elections next year?

Disclosure: Delegate Jeff Waldstreicher (D-18), one of the members of the District 18 Democratic Team, was named in the state prosecutors’ statement. I have not discussed his case with him and have no knowledge of its specifics.