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A small campaign with a six-figure problem

The Rhode Island Board of Elections office in Providence. Ed Fitzpatrick/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — When he ran for the state House of Representatives back in 2010, Samuel J. Tassia raised a grand total of $50.

“It was a donation from a friend of mine who has since passed away,” he explained.

But when he came before Rhode Island Board of Elections on Tuesday, Tassia owed a whopping $118,120 in fines for failing to file his campaign finance forms on time.

Tassia, a Pawtucket Republican who ended up getting crushed by a Democratic incumbent in the 2010 election, amassed the fines by submitting a single campaign finance report and then missing the deadline for 36 subsequent reports.

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His campaign account contained just $32.50. But since he never closed the account, he began racking up fines of $2 per day per report. As each deadline passed, his tiny account mushroomed into a six-figure problem.

After hearing from Tassia, the Board of Elections agreed to lower the fine to $605 — matching the amount the board spent on mailing, labor, and issuing subpoenas to Tassia over the years.

His was one of nearly a dozen campaign finance cases that came before the board on Tuesday, prompting renewed calls to revise the state’s campaign fine structure and to establish a standardized system for such appeals.

When Tassia asked the board to lower the $118,120 fine, board member Isadore Ramos asked, “How in the world did it get to that point?”

“I haven’t been filing the reports,” Tassia said, explaining that he has faced illness and family issues. “I’ve been negligent. I hope you can show me the same leniency as the previous people.”

Board Vice Chair Stephen P. Erickson agreed with the recommendation to lower Tassia’s fine, saying, “We are saddled with this fine structure that is completely out of whack with any sense of proportionality that is required by the Supreme Court in assessing fines. So someone who raised $50 now owes us $118,000.”

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Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court ruled that the value of property seized in criminal cases can’t be out of proportion to the crimes involved, Erickson noted. And the Board of Elections must ensure that its fines are proportional to the campaign finance violations, or the cases won’t stand up in court, he said.

Erickson said the board has proposed legislation to address this issue in recent years, and possible solutions could involve the flat fines or caps on fine totals used in other states. He said it would be better to have a blanket policy than to address these situations on a case-by-case basis.

After lowering fines in another case, board member Richard H. Pierce said, “I hope we are not giving a message that people can ignore the requirements.” Rather, he said, “We are looking at practical considerations that are involved.”

Board Chair Diane C. Mederos said, “I think people understand the gravity of this. When they come in, they have the Sword of Damocles hanging over their head, and when they leave, they are very relieved. So I think the process we are following now makes pretty good sense.”

Board legal counsel Raymond Marcaccio the board has a working group looking for solutions. “We do need to come up with some process, not only because of the defensibility of it, but because we do want to get a little bit more of uniform protocol in place,” he said.

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Richard E. Thornton, the board’s director of campaign finance, submitted a report showing that 11.2 percent of campaign finance reports were filed late over the past six months — down from 22.5 percent in the first six months of 2016. The report credited “the effectiveness of additional staff resources, resulting in more frequent and targeted communication to filers.”

The board postponed action a proposed lease for new headquarters in Cranston. The board is looking to move out of its offices on Branch Avenue, in Providence, and the agenda included a possible vote to sign a lease with Dean Warehouse Services for space at 2000 Plainfield Pike, in Cranston.

But Marcaccio said, “The terms of the lease are not at a point where it would be worth the board considering” a vote. So the board will revisit the matter on Sept. 17.

Paolino Properties and Mutual Properties 14 Thurber LLC have filed a lawsuit, claiming the state received five bids but unlawfully abandoned the bid process in order to cut a deal for the Cranston property. Former Providence mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr., managing partner of Paolino Properties, attended Tuesday’s meeting but left when the matter was postponed.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FitzProv.