Local candidates aren’t being transparent about campaign finance

Illustration: Sarah Grillo / Axios.

Ten candidates in the city’s upcoming elections failed to submit required campaign finance documents that help the public understand where their money is coming from, according to county and state records.

What’s happening: The most recent campaign finance report was due April 12. Among the 10 who haven’t submitted are two City Council at-large candidates: Democrat James “Smuggie” Mitchell and Republican David Merrill.

  • Mayoral candidates Tae McKenzie and Lucille Puckett, both Democrats, and Republican Mohamed Moustafa also don’t have their reports on file, per the local board of elections.

Another six candidates were referred to the state by the local board of elections for filing their reports late, by Mecklenburg Elections Director Michael Dickerson. They include three sitting council members: District 2 Rep. Malcolm Graham, District 4 Rep. Renee Perkins Johnson and District 6 Rep. Tariq Bokhari.

  • Former council member and at-large candidate LaWana Mayfield, District 1 candidate Billy Maddalon and District 2 candidate Amar Johnson also missed the deadline.

Why it matters: These reports are the first glimpse into who is contributing to city races, and how the candidates are spending the money, with the primary approaching on May 17.

  • Campaign contributors may influence voters’ decisions, and a lack of information keeps voters in the dark about the money flowing into the races they’re casting their ballots in.
  • Candidates can be fined for not turning these reports on time.
  • “More important than (financial penalties) are the optics of it,” says Susan Roberts, a political science professor at Davidson College. “It doesn’t look like someone you want to elect to public office if they’re negligent about filing things according to a deadline.”

How it works: Dickerson said after 10 days, if his office hasn’t received reports from a candidate’s committee (the mechanism through which a candidate raises and spends money) it is referred to the state Board of Elections as a late or non-filer. The state reviews them and has the ability to levy fines.

  • If the report comes in after April 12, even if it’s before that 10-day timeframe is up, Dickerson said he still has to report the candidate’s committee to the state.

Several candidates in competitive district races failed to turn in the required campaign finance report due last month, including:

  • Danté Anderson and Charlene Henderson, both candidates for Charlotte City Council District 1, the open seat being vacated by incumbent Larken Egleston, who is running at-large.
  • Kendrick Cunningham, an activist running for District 2, is currently represented by Graham.
  • Curtis Hayes Jr., an activist who went viral during the George Floyd protests, and Mama’s Caribbean Grill owner Vinroy Reid, who are running in a crowded Democratic primary for District 5 in east Charlotte.

What they’re saying: Axios reached out to all of the candidates who were reported for filing late or having missing reports.

  • Graham, whose report was six days late, said his report was turned in and refused to comment further.
  • Mitchell called it an “oversight” and his treasurer didn’t realize the report was due. He said the campaign is working to submit it by Monday, May 2.
  • Bokhari told Axios in a texted statement he was on the road with his family for spring break when the report was due. He let the Board of Elections know he would submit it when he returned, and turned it in on April 19.
  • “A couple of days late is very different than just not doing it for months and years, which is the real problem going out there,” Bokhari said.

More Responses: In the mayor’s race, Moustafa told Axios in a text he never collected any donations. But he would still have to file a report stating he does not intend to raise more than a certain amount. Dickerson says he doesn’t have that on file for him.

  • McKenzie told Axios in an email she turned it in, but it wasn’t delivered, so she resubmitted it several days ago (Dickerson said his office hasn’t received anything yet).
  • Maddalon said he did not receive a notification the report was due until the day before the deadline, when he got a call from a board volunteer. He said the campaign dropped everything to submit it within the 10-day window (it was turned in April 20).
  • Maddalon is concerned about the number of candidates who didn’t turn anything in. “It either says they just don’t care or they’re incompetent, ”he said. “I’m not sure which one is worse when you’re running for public office.”

Anderson, the other District 1 candidate, told Axios in an email that the campaign had trouble with the software in its system and has since submitted the report.

  • As of Sunday evening, it still did not appear in state or county records.

Yes, but: There was already confusion over this year’s city elections, which were moved first due to delays in the census data needed for redistricting, then because of a court case over state redistricting.

  • The filing deadlines for campaign finance reports were changed as a result, which Dickerson believes may have caused confusion. He said he typically doesn’t see so many candidates failing to comply with the requirements.

What’s next: The next report is due May 9, just over a week before the primary, and thousands of voters will have already cast their ballots by then through early voting, which runs through May 14.

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