Bartlett struggles with campaign disclosure

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the Western Maryland Republican who faces a re-election battle this fall, has repeatedly filed incomplete and inaccurate campaign finance reports, and was fined $5,000 this year by the Federal Election Commission, records show.

A review of FEC data by the Baltimore Sun found that Bartlett has received 25 letters from the agency for incomplete reports since 2009 — more than any other current member of the House of Representatives.

A March settlement between the Bartlett campaign and the agency shows the 10-term lawmaker was hit with the civil fine for what regulators deemed to be "excessive and/or prohibited contributions, mathematical discrepancies, missing schedules and inadequate contributor information."

In an interview, Bartlett said the problems are old and that his campaign has hired an accountant to sort out remaining issues. He said the irregularities began with a glitch that occurred when the campaign began using new software to file reports electronically.

"All this is old stuff," the congressman said. "We had a lot of stuff to get straightened out from the past and we're doing that. When we learned there were problems with it, we dealt with it. And there was no intentional wrongdoing. We're not trying to hide anything."

Bartlett has struggled for more than a decade to put his campaign account in order, but the problems will receive significantly more attention now that he is facing the toughest re-election challenge of his career. Bartlett's 6th Congressional District was redrawn last year and is now far more friendly to Democrats.

A spokesman for state Democrats said the problems raise questions about how Bartlett runs his campaign and congressional office.

"If you can't play by the rules when it comes to campaign finance — doing simple things like reporting who is a contributor and where you're spending money — I would have some serious questions about trust and character when it comes to decision-making," said Matthew Verghese, political and communications director for the Maryland Democratic Party.

Candidates are required to disclose information about donors so that voters may track where they are getting campaign money.

Bartlett's campaign has shown some signs of progress in recent months. Of the 25 FEC letters he received in the past two elections,18 were sent during the 2010 election compared with seven so far this cycle. Bartlett said he is augmenting his staff with more experienced political aides.

But problems persist. This month the FEC wrote Bartlett's campaign twice with new query letters, covering the same issues he has wrestled with for years. In a letter dated June 4, the FEC questioned why he was repeatedly failing to disclose whom his donors work for. A campaign report filed March 22 — days before the state's April 3 primary — fails to list the employer of 30 donors who gave nearly $30,000, for instance.

In a separate letter this month, the FEC noted Bartlett failed to provide details about how he is spending his campaign money. For example, Bartlett's March report shows the campaign paid more than $186,000 to a San Francisco-based political consulting firm Dresner, Wickers, Barber, Sanders without stating a purpose for the spending.

Much of that information is still missing, even though Bartlett has twice amended the report to address questions from the FEC.

Bob Wickers, president of the firm, had a key role in the campaign earlier this year; at that time, Bartlett's congressional office referred campaign-related phone calls from The Baltimore Sun to Wickers. Republicans close to the campaign said Wickers was responsible for producing and purchasing airtime for Bartlett's television advertising. But that is not noted in the report.

The Bartlett campaign had been warned about many of the problems in a 2008 audit by the elections agency. At the time, the FEC discovered the campaign had understated its receipts by $20,000 — including more than $7,000 in political action committee donations — and misstated its spending by more than $12,000. The campaign agreed to amend its reports to fix those issues.

The ongoing issues take on added significance as Bartlett seeks an 11th term in a nationally watched race that could help decide control of Congress. The campaign is collecting far more money than it has in many years — meaning there are many more donations to track.

Congressional candidates must file the next finance report July 15. That report will cover the second quarter of this year.

The Buckeystown lawmaker has so far raised $386,461 for the 2012 election cycle compared with $2.5 million collected by his Democratic challenger, Potomac banker John Delaney. Delaney's haul includes $1.7 million he gave or loaned himself. Despite running in an expensive primary election, Delaney has more cash on hand than Bartlett, $316,500 compared with $266,689.

Nonpartisan political analysts, such as the Cook Political Report, predict Democrats will win the seat.

Delaney has not directly criticized Bartlett for his campaign finance reports.

"We focus on making sure our filings are accurate," he said in a statement. "To the extent the congressman made a mistake, I'm sure it was an honest mistake."

That is precisely the argument Bartlett had made — that the errors are unintentional.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that by not taking stronger enforcement actions, the FEC may be signaling it agrees with that assessment.

Settlements, such as the one Bartlett's campaign signed in March, are relatively common, she said.

"It sounds like he's screwing up [but] it would have to be more than that to get you into an FEC enforcement situation," said Sloan. Still, she said of the FEC queries Bartlett has received since 2009, "that's a lot of letters."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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