Commissioner-elect faces state probe over campaign spending

Long-shot ‘election fraud’ complaint against Pena could lead to more fines

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MONDAY, Nov. 30 — State officials are set to investigate a complaint about Ingham County Commissioner-Elect Bob Pena, who was already found to be months late in reporting thousands of dollars in political contributions.

A spokesperson for the Michigan Bureau of Elections confirmed a complaint against Pena was received today, triggering what will likely become a lengthy back-and-forth between state officials and Pena’s campaign committee over missed deadlines and inaccurate political filings.

Pena’s grassroots political campaign, which enabled him to unseat incumbent Commissioner Thomas Morgan for a slot representing Lansing’s east side, first ran into problems this summer.

Records show Pena was granted a requested reporting waiver in May, formally certifying that he didn’t plan to spend or raise more than $1,000 over the course of his campaign. Spending records, which were both late and inaccurate when filed on Oct. 14, showed he passed that mark in July.

After switching treasurers, Pena’s campaign eventually filed corrected versions of those spending records on Oct. 29 — well past the Aug. 4 primary election and months past the August and September reporting deadlines.

County Clerk Byrum dinged Pena for a $1,000 in fines that accumulated during those delays. Those still haven’t been paid this week, she confirmed. That’s also the extent of Byrum’s authority as the county’s top elections official. Other consequences are up to the state, she said.

A complaint filed by eastside resident Stephen Romero asserts that Pena should be held further accountable for his recent reporting missteps. Romero didn’t return calls today. He suggested in his written complaint that Pena should face criminal misdemeanor charges for “election fraud.”

“Pena clearly committed election fraud and violated several subsections of MCL 169.233,” Romero wrote. “Voters were unable to review his records before making their decision.”

State law requires candidates to report campaign donations and expenditures periodically if the amount raised or spent exceeds $1,000 each during any given election cycle. Violations for knowingly (and repeatedly) violating the statute could constitute a misdemeanor punishable by 90 days in jail, a $1,000 fine or both — though those punishments are uncommon, sources said.

Pena didn’t return calls today. Many, however, don’t expect the issue or Romero’s complaint to rise to much more than a wrist slap and some fees. Byrum labeled Michigan’s campaign finance laws — and its enforcement — as “unfortunately” among the “most relaxed” in the nation.

“The secretary of state can fine candidates or their committees, but quite frankly, we rely on the press for holding our candidates accountable. It’s unfortunate,” Byrum added. “It’s also unfortunate someone would sign a document that specifically says they intend to raise or spend less than $1,000 while knowingly raising or spending more than $1,000. It’s really pretty clear.”

Pena’s corrected reports still include $3,200 in expenditures and at least $650 in contributions during the latest election cycle — still well beyond the $1,000 limitation in his initial waiver. Those records also show Pena with an ending balance of about $800 at the end of October.

Byrum previously told City Pulse that had she known that Pena’s campaign spending exceeded $1,000, she would not have allowed his waiver to stay in place for the general election.

Byrum’s authority is limited to fines and fees. State officials don’t often do much more.

Scott Hughes, community outreach coordinator at the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office, said he couldn’t recall any criminal cases involving election complaints. He said state officials, when reviewing a complaint, will typically contact the candidate and seek a response to the allegations. And even if sustained, they rarely amount to more than fines.

An Ingham County judge in 2007 threw out somewhat similar campaign finance-related charges against state Rep. George Cushingberry, who had been charged with one misdemeanor count for failing to file campaign finance statements on time, reported Crain’s Detroit Business.

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