After a referral or a complaint is filed with the Ohio Elections Commission (OEC), Commission staff assigns a case number to each individual matter and notifies the parties by mail that there is an action pending on a specific date. On a matter that is scheduled to come before the Commission on that date, the OEC will hold a ‘Preliminary Review’ of the matter. During the Preliminary Review, the OEC considers all written materials that have been submitted (complaint, response, recommendation of the Staff Attorney & any other pertinent documents), takes statements that are offered by interested parties in attendance and makes a decision on the case.
The OEC may decide to continue the matter to a later date if the Commission believes that is the best way to assure that a case is given every opportunity to be fairly reviewed. Alternatively, if the Commission does believe that there is at least a possibility that a violation of the statute has occurred, but is not convinced that this is the case, the OEC could then decide to set a matter for a full and complete hearing, which would occur at a later date.
If the OEC does make a full and final decision on the merits of a case, the first ruling is simply whether there is a violation of the statute or if there is no violation. If the Commission finds no violation in the case, the matter is over. If the Commission does find that there is a violation in a case, whether at the Preliminary Review or after a full and complete hearing (as discussed earlier), the OEC is able to do one of three (3) things.
- The Commission could send a case to a county Prosecutor for criminal prosecution.
- The OEC can impose a fine. The amount of the fine that the Commission can impose in a case is set in Ohio law. Ohio Revised Code §3517.992, as further developed in the OEC’s administrative rules (Ohio Administrative Code §3517-1-14), sets out the amount of the fine that the Commission can impose for any particular violation of law. While the statutes and rules lay out the maximum fine amounts, the OEC rarely imposes maximum fines for first cases that are before it.
- The Commission is empowered to find that there is ‘good cause’ present not to either impose a fine or refer a matter for further prosecution.
All of the statutes for which the OEC has jurisdiction are criminal statutes but when the Commission acts, it is acting as a state administrative agency and its immediate finding is an administrative finding, not a criminal finding. The OEC considers criminal prosecution as its most serious penalty and it reserves this action for the most egregious cases that are before the Commission. Since becoming an independent agency in the state of Ohio in January 1996, the Commission has only sent 13 cases to a county Prosecutor for further criminal action among the over 20,000 case that have come before the Commission.
The OEC and its Staff Attorney assess a variety of factors in every case before the Commission decides which action to take. If the Commission either imposes a fine or finds that there is good cause present not to do so, these are among the factors:
- whether a campaign finance report has been filed or how late a filing was made;
- whether any pertinent statement, addenda, or affidavit has been filed;
- whether the violator has any prior violation with the OEC;
- whether the violation was made knowingly or purposely;
- whether the violator has any outstanding fines imposed by the Commission; and
- whether there are substantial grounds or personal reasons tending to excuse or justify the violation.
If imposed, a fine should then be paid to the Ohio Elections Commission Fund with the OEC.