A Durham City Council meeting in March 2022. Two members of the council were delinquent in campaign finance filings in 2021, according to Durham County Board of Election documents. Photo by City of Durham Facebook.

Durham Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton did not file any campaign finance reports required by law in the last cycle, according to documents from the Durham County Board of Elections.

“I had a treasurer bail on me, and I raised no money,” Middleton said when initially asked about the missing 2021 filings. “I literally raised zero money in the last campaign, and we'll be coming into compliance very soon.”

In an email Thursday afternoon, Middleton said a person who he believed would serve as his treasurer was unable to do so as the deadline approached so he served as his own treasurer.

“My late campaign finance reports are first and foremost a failure of my own,” he wrote.

Middleton said he intends to file the required paperwork to show he did not receive any contributions from “any private individual, corporate interest, or issue advocacy group,” and he made personal expenditures of about $2,220 on behalf of the campaign for his filing fee and yard signs.

“I hired no workers and held no fundraisers,” he wrote. He said the reports will be filed in the next few days.

Candidates for municipal offices who raise or spend less than $1,000 may be exempt from filing under the law, but the candidate’s treasurer must still file a certification that the campaign doesn’t intend to spend, borrow or raise more than $1,000.

Middleton did not file that certification, according to Brenda Baker, deputy director of the Durham County Board of Elections.

However, since he now says that he spent more than $2,000, he appears to have passed the $1,000 limit and would need to follow the law’s broader filing requirements.

Middleton’s campaign received notice of the delinquent filing issues and penalties in January and February, according to board documents. Candidates for municipal offices are required by state law to file reports with their local board of elections, even if they do not raise any funds.

Publicly available campaign finance documents provide transparency about who contributes to campaigns and how campaigns spend those funds.

“It's critical for us to be able to hold our elected officials accountable, and to know where their bread is buttered,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

Middleton, founder and pastor of the Abundant Hope Christian Church, first ran to represent Durham’s Ward 2 on the City Council in 2017, defeating John Rooks Jr. His 2017 campaign committee, Middleton 4 Durham, filed reports in that cycle, according to the Durham County Board of Elections website.

He served as treasurer of his campaign in 2017, which is permitted under state law. In the last filing from the 2017 cycle, Middleton reported raising $7,798.39 and spending about $3,800 on yard signs, T-shirts and Facebook advertising.

In the 2021 cycle, Middleton faced a challenge to reelection from Sylvester Williams. Middleton did not file any reports in the fall, prompting the Board of Elections to send two notices of noncompliance.

The first, sent in January, said the 2021 Pre-Primary Report was not filed on time, and under state law, the penalty is $50 per day, not to exceed $500. The second letter, sent in February, said the Pre-Election Report was also not filed on time, and the board imposed an additional penalty of $500.

The fees are paid to the state, according to Baker. Neither penalty has been paid, according to N.C. State Board of Elections spokesperson Pat Gannon.

State law gives candidates 20 days from issuance of pre-primary notice letters and 30 from issuance of pre-election notice letters to remedy the problem. If reports are not filed within those time windows, the campaign committee’s active status is terminated, the letters warned.

“This status renders the committee ineligible to receive or make contributions until the committee has filed the delinquent campaign finance report and satisfied any late filing penalty incurred,” according to state law.

If a candidate does not file the reports, the local board notifies the State Board of Elections, Baker said. Delinquent reports from the 2021 cycle, including Middleton’s, were sent to the state board, according to Baker.

“Mr. Middleton has contacted our office to obtain a list of reports that he is due,” Baker said in an email.

In his email Thursday, Middleton said he would pay the fines with his own funds in the next few days.

Other Durham candidate filings

The campaign of Durham council member Leonardo Williams, a first-time candidate for Ward 3, was also delinquent in filing timely reports last year. Williams' campaign received a notice of noncompliance for the 2021 Pre-Election Report and a notice of the $500 fine in February.

“For any first-time candidate, this is not the easiest process,” he said.

His campaign staff members thought they had correctly completed the paperwork, he said. After learning of the delinquent report, “we immediately addressed it then,” he said.

Williams filed the report in late April, according to the Board of Elections documents. His campaign raised about $27,000, according to his campaign filings.

Durham council member DeDreana Freeman initially ran in the same 2017 cycle as Middleton, and she won reelection last year. According to her latest campaign filings, she raised almost $40,000 for her 2021 reelection campaign.

Campaign finance at the municipal level is “something people often ignore, but they shouldn’t,” Cooper said.

“If you are a lobbyist or if you are an interest group, and you want to affect the outcome of a campaign, your $1,000 is going to go a lot farther in the city council election, than it is in a federal or state election,” he said.

State law also sets limits on who may donate to a campaign and sets a cap of $5,600 for individual contributors. Without reports, it is difficult to determine who, if anyone, donates to a campaign.

While the law provides for enforcement of the fines by the attorney general, the state board has not brought those actions in other cases, according to reporting by WHQR.

“It's a hard thing to enforce,” Cooper said, likening it to code enforcement in a city. “We know it's illegal to have your grass above a certain height, but the work to get somebody to pay the fine may not be worth it.”

The state board has not referred Middleton or Williams to the attorney general, Gannon said in an email.

“The routine referral of assessments has not taken place in recent years, due to the costly and time-intensive nature of filing a lawsuit to recover campaign finance penalties, the vast majority of which involve modest amounts,” he wrote.

Editor's note: This article was updated at 8 p.m. on May 19 to include new statements from Mark-Anthony Middleton that he provided after initial publication of the article earlier in the day.

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Laura Lee is the former news editor at Wmforo.

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