As state regulatory agencies go, the Ohio Elections Commission has a reputation as a toothless monster, breathing smoke rather than fire. Hampered by admittedly vague laws, the seven-member panel seems reluctant to come down hard on sleazy election practices, even when it has clear justification.
Now, however, the commission is seeking to harden its image - in the worst way - by insisting on collection of a $15,541 fine against an erstwhile Columbus school board candidate for being two years late in filing a campaign-finance report.
To make matters worse, the former candidate - who is blind and now unemployed - is being dunned by the office of Attorney General Betty Montgomery, which is threatening to foreclose on his home to satisfy the fine.
All this over a report in which the candidate reported spending all of $90 on his losing 1997 campaign.
Granted, the candidate, Reggie Anglen, violated state law, which provides for a fine of $25 for each day a report is tardy. But $15,541 is so grossly excessive, so disproportionate to the offense, as to amount to cruel and unusual punishment in the constitutional sense.
And it is downright absurd, given that the maximum fine the commission can levy for most election law violations is $1,000.
Even if the fine is overturned by some higher authority and Mr. Anglen is fortunate enough to keep his home, the ham-handed enforcement action does nothing to improve the elections commission's image.
This is, after all, the same commission that continually finds excuses to administer mere slaps on the wrist - or no punishment at all - to powerful politicians and political interests.
In 1999, the panel gave a $1,000 love tap to an associate of George Voinovich, who had by then moved from the governor's office to the U.S. Senate, for laundering gubernatorial campaign funds in 1994.
Another example came four years ago, when Donna Owens was caught distributing “invitations” to a state Republican Party fund-raiser to civil service employees who worked for her in her capacity as state commerce director.
The commission let the former Toledo mayor off the hook, accepting her lame excuse that she - a longtime GOP official - thought the party fund-raiser, ticketed at from $100 a person to $5,000 a couple, was merely “a major social event.”
We are not suggesting that the commission play the patsy for election scofflaws, of whom there are many. The commission has some $4 million in fines outstanding, which may be the reason the panel decided to suddenly get tough.
But someone in Columbus should have the good sense to exercise judgment and see that justice is done before a man loses his home for what was, in the final analysis, a rather minor infraction.