New election filing system triggers fines for local candidates

December 14, 2023

By Linda Cicoira

Monetary penalties for the late filing of financial information ranged from between $100 and $4,100 and were recently assessed for 17 candidates who ran in the November General Election in Accomack County.

Among those were the sheriff, the commonwealth’s attorney, the commissioner of the revenue, the clerk of court-elect, members of the board of supervisors, members of the school board, and the soil and water conservation district directors.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Spencer Morgan and Sheriff Todd Wessells said they paid their assessments.

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“Traditionally, candidates in Accomack … could file their financial reports by paper,” Morgan said Wednesday. “In this past election cycle, local candidates were required to file all financial disclosures via the Board of Elections’ COMET e-filing system and many candidates and their treasurers, myself included, found the system confusing, missing filing dates or failing to file required information” on time.

“Many candidates, myself included,” Morgan continued, “were under the impression that not receiving or disbursing any funds during the election cycle mitigated or obviated the necessity to continue reporting.”

Morgan had four late reports and was billed $3,100.

“For my part, I have remitted the fine amount to the Accomack County Treasurer and will be sworn in on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023,” Morgan said.

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According to a state elections official, “If the penalties remain unpaid, the candidate is not qualified for office.”

In the meantime, the prosecutor reached out to the attorney general’s office and Del. Rob Bloxom. “I do think the law needs to be adjusted,” he said. Especially for those who get little compensation. “I’m hoping we can make changes as well as (offer) training so we make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

State code provides for a civil penalty of $100 for the first missed or late filing and $1000 for every subsequent filing that does not comply. After 60 days the fine is referred to the commonwealth attorney for collections.

“I do not believe there was criminal intent on the part of any of the candidates and I am reaching out to the Attorney General’s Office to discuss collecting the fines,” Morgan said.

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The same assessments were made for Sands Gayle, a soil and water conservation district director-elect, and Jessica Lewis, who lost her bid for School Board in District 3.

Sheriff Wessells filed late three times and was charged $2,100. On Wednesday he explained that he didn’t take in any contributions and didn’t spend any money in this campaign. He was unopposed. “So, my treasurer and I thought we were good to go.” When he was notified otherwise, Wessells said, he immediately paid the bill. “It is what it is,” he added.

The highest bill went to Supervisor Paul Muhly, who unsuccessfully ran for a third term. According to the assessment, Muhly was tardy in filing paperwork five times and is being charged $4,100.

A bill was also sent to District 1 School Board Member Jesse Speidel, who was assessed at $2,100. He was unsuccessfully challenged by Connie Burford, who was accused of filing one report late and was billed $100.

Burford said there were internet issues with Spectrum, her only choice of provider where she lives on Chincoteague, when her cited report was due.

“I did my report and submitted my report, or so I thought,” Burford said. When she didn’t get an email verifying that her filing had been received, she called the board of elections. She said a man answered and helped her. She permitted him to go into her computer and he was able to see that she had attempted to file on time, Burford said. He was able to fix her file and even changed a date from 2024 to 2023, which she had mistakenly entered. Burford thought that was the end of it.

“Then all of a sudden the election” was over and she received an email saying she was late and owed a $100 assessment. Burford said that at the beginning of the process, the state system ” would block candidates off so they couldn’t file. The only communication was email. It was very unprofessional,” she said.

“This has nothing to do with Angel Shrieves, Accomack’s registrar,” Burford said. She blamed the computer program and the assessments on the state.

District 4 School Board Member-Elect P. Glenn Neal, District 6 School Board Member-Elect Jason Weippert, and District 5 School Board Member Camisha Handy were each charged $1,100 for making two late reports.

Commissioner of the Revenue Kimberly Satterwhite, Soil and Water Conservation District Director James Evans, District 9 School Board Member Malcolm White, his opponent Alex Vargas, District 9 Supervisor Reneta Major, Clerk of the Circuit Court-Elect Talia Taylor, and Candidate for Clerk Cedric Cooper were each assessed $100 for making a late report.

      In the notices, the candidates were instructed to send payments to the Accomack Treasurer James Lilliston, who incidentally ran unopposed and filed his papers on time. Information about which other candidates have paid their assessments was not available.

External Affairs Manager Andrea Gaines of the Virginia Department of Elections said all candidates are required to file campaign finance reports electronically according to a 2020 bill. She said the $100 penalty was set by the state board. “The General Assembly set the second and subsequent fees at $1000. Department of Elections staff and the General Registrars are required to follow the law as passed by the General Assembly.”

Candidates were sent charts with filing deadlines and reminders, according to one candidate

There were no late filings reported in Northampton County.

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