The Associated Press
CLEVELAND - A forgotten $32 expense and an unchecked box on a form are at the root of Jeff McNeely's $59,000 problem.
The telephone company technician says he will never run for political office again - after his own mistakes and missteps by Ohio agencies have him worried about bankruptcy.
In 1996, McNeely ran an unsuccessful bid to unseat popular former state Rep. Barbara Pringle, a Cleveland Democrat.
The Republican political novice spent $118 on fliers. His pregnant wife served as campaign treasurer, while a friend was paid $32 to distribute the fliers. McNeely, then a factory worker, lost the election by a 3-to-1 ratio.
He filed a campaign finance report with the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, but apparently neglected to record the $32 expenditure and failed to check the "termination" box at the top of the form.
That meant his campaign remained open, and he was required to file a new report the following year.
In 1998, the Ohio Elections Commission, which enforces the state's campaign finance laws, found McNeely guilty of not filing the subsequent report and imposed a $25-per-day fine.
Two weeks ago, the state attorney general's office sued McNeely, saying he owes nearly $59,000 in overdue fines and attorney fees.
"I don't even have equity in my house," McNeely said.
According to the Elections Commission, at least five notices were sent over three years to McNeely's various addresses. McNeely said he never received the notices because he moved several times from 1998 to late 2000.
When McNeely finally got a letter in 2001, commission records show he filed a corrected version of the 1997 report, adding the $32 and a check mark in the "termination" box.
However, the elections commission continued to fine McNeely $25 a day for another 11/2 years after the corrected form was filed, boosting his fine to $44,900 from about $30,000.
Philip Richter, the commission's executive director, acknowledged the mistake last week.
"Somebody didn't give us some information, but we should have gotten it," Richter said. "It's not a very good explanation, but it is the best one I got."
The seven-member Ohio Elections Commission referred about $11 million in fines to the attorney general's office in 2001 and 2002. But less than 1 percent of that, about $31,000, was collected in the past three years, said Mark Gribben, a spokesman for Attorney General Jim Petro.
The cases are assigned to private attorneys, who have the authority to negotiate a settlement, Gribben said, adding that the office discourages suing candidates.
McNeely, who has asked his divorce lawyer for legal help, said the experience is enough to keep him out of politics.
"I'll never run again," he said. "And that's a tragedy because I'm very politically motivated."
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Index of Sunday's local stories