Elections commission admits $2 million error - East Valley Tribune: News

Elections commission admits $2 million error

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Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2007 1:56 pm | Updated: 7:38 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

PHOENIX - Embarrassed officials at the agency that oversees the state's public campaign financing system and monitors candidates' spending acknowledge that they underreported their own annual spending by $2 million.

The Citizens Clean Elections Commission's annual report for 2006 originally listed total spending at $11.4 million. But the commission has issued a revised version of the report putting total spending at $13.4 million.

In making the error, the commission underreported its spending on administration and enforcement by approximately $245,000 and its spending on voter education by approximately $1.8 million, according to figures in the corrected report.

The commission's top staff official said Tuesday the errors were inadvertent and resulted from mistakes in putting data into a spreadsheet.

Executive Director Todd Lang said he personally double-checked the math that produced the erroneous total spending figure but that he didn't catch that some items were left out of the calculation.

Lang said the commission corrected the report after its accuracy was questioned by The Arizona Capitol Times, a weekly newspaper which reported the error Friday.

Lang stressed that the commission's monthly finance reports to state finance officials were correct and only the cumulative figures in the annual report were incorrect.

"The public has always had accurate information," he said.

Gary Scaramazzo, the chairman of the five-member appointed commission that oversees the program and its staff, acknowledged that the error involved "a substantial amount of money."

"I think embarrassing would be a fair analysis, but it's something readily acknowledged that we made a mistake and we corrected it," said Scaramazzo, a Page economic-development consultant and real-estate developer.

However, state Treasurer Dean Martin called the errors very troubling and said red flags should have been raised merely because the expense of publishing voter guides is larger than the erroneous figure for all of the commission's voter education efforts.

"This should never got out the door like this," declared Martin, who also said he was troubled by the commission's increased spending on voter education. "At best it's sloppy bookkeeping. At worst they were covering up what they were doing."

Lang said the commission had nothing to hide and it is proud of its voter education efforts.

Martin, a critic of the Clean Elections campaign finance system, said his office has authority to examine state agencies' financial records but that it would be inappropriate for him to do so because he has a pending lawsuit challenging the campaign financing system.

The state Auditor General's Office, a legislative watchdog agency, periodically reviews the commission's operations. The most recent review, dealing with campaign finance issues related to candidates, was issued in 2005.

It wasn't immediately known whether the reporting error would trigger a new review. The office's performance audit director, Melanie Chesney, did not immediately return a call for comment.

Lang said the error was a reminder of why the commission often settles campaign-finance cases that involve innocent mistakes by campaigns. "Candidates make mistakes and we understand that," he said.

Scaramazzo said the staff responded appropriately. "They understand that the commission doesn't want to accept these types of mistakes that send an incorrect message to the public."

The Clean Elections system was established under a 1998 voter-approved initiative. Since 2000, the system has provided public financing for candidates for statewide offices and the Legislature. Most of the money comes from surcharges on criminal and traffic fines.

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