published Monday, June 4th, 2012

Congressional candidate Ron Bhalla finance report has error

by Chris Carroll

Republican congressional candidate Ron Bhalla appears to be in violation of federal campaign finance law, but he calls it an innocent mistake.

Bhalla is a Chattanooga businessman challenging U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann in Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District Republican primary. On April 14, Bhalla submitted his first campaign finance report to the Federal Election Commission.

Late Friday, Bhalla's 11-page report included just one expenditure -- a $14,145 lump-sum disbursement to himself without any additional information. Federal Election Commission regulations require candidates to provide "a brief but specific description" of every campaign expenditure.

Bhalla's blue-and-white campaign signs are all over town, and he recently purchased brochures and business cards.

Those items aren't mentioned in Bhalla's filing.

Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., said disclosure laws aim to ensure transparency in campaign finance.

A Federal Election Commission candidate guide suggests "dinner expense" and "postage" as examples of a disbursement's purpose, but staff salaries, printing costs and consulting fees are common within most financial reports.

The "purpose of disbursement" section of Bhalla's five-figure expenditure was blank Friday.

"Blank is blank," Ryan said. "Blank is not in compliance. This appears to be a violation of a legal requirement."

Campaign treasurer and Hixson accountant Bob Palmer said Bhalla filed the report himself.

"I don't know anything about this," Palmer said. "I thought he'd start giving me some things to keep track of, but I haven't seen him."

Bhalla promised to itemize his expenses this week.

"I was totally unaware of this," he said.

FEC spokesman Christian Hilland declined to comment on Bhalla's case, citing agency policy. But he said the commission's reports analysis division looks into "issues of potential noncompliance."

Ryan said it's likely that FEC officials will request more information from Bhalla.

"That's to some extent a warning shot across the bow," Ryan said. "He may be hit with a fine."

Scottie Mayfield and Weston Wamp also are challenging Fleischmann in the 3rd District GOP primary.

Fleischmann, Mayfield and Wamp collectively had $1.6 million in campaign cash, according to the latest filings. A first-time political candidate, Bhalla reported $935 on hand.

Physician Mary Headrick and businessman Bill Taylor are on the Democratic side, and Matthew Deniston is the lone independent candidate.

The primaries are Aug. 2.

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