AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Ethics Commission plans to investigate whether the organization Maine Leads violated state campaign finance laws during its efforts to get two anti-tax measures on the ballot.
The commission also voted unanimously on Thursday to require Dana Kadey, a former political candidate from Washington County, to pay more than $3,000 for questionable purchases using public campaign funds.
The commission did not make a decision on whether Maine Leads violated any rules by providing $50,000 to groups organizing petition drives to repeal the excise tax and to support the latest Taxpayer Bill or Rights, or TABOR II.
But commission members agreed with staff that there is evidence to support examining whether the contributions mean Maine Leads should have to file with the state as a political entity.
Former state Rep. Deborah Hutton of Bowdoinham contends that Maine Leads is actually a political action committee because of funding it made for three citizen initiatives. Maine Leads’ failure to register as a PAC, Hutton argues, hides from the public the identity of the real group behind the initiatives.
PACs have different lobbying and political expenditure reporting requirements than nonprofit organizations.
Those contributions provided 75 percent of the funding that three political action committees used to gather signatures for the ballot measures.
The petition drives to reduce the excise tax and for TABOR II succeeded and are likely to be on the November ballot. A petition drive dealing with access to health insurance failed to generate enough signatures
Hutton’s attorney, Benjamin Grant, suggested to commission members on Thursday that Maine Leads’ major purpose was to initiate the referenda.
“We found no evidence of other expenditures for any other purposes by Maine Leads,” Grant said.
But Dan Billings, an attorney for Maine Leads, said that under his interpretation of Maine rules in place at the time, an organization that supports signature gathering for a ballot measure is not automatically a PAC.
“The fact that those PACs received almost all of their funds from one source doesn’t make the one source a PAC,” Billings said.
Commission staff said the Legislature passed laws clearly intended to shed more light on the money behind signature gathering drives. They also pointed out that Maine Leads has close connections to all three of the PACs that received contributions.
Additionally, the consulting group that was paid more than $80,000 by the three PACs to gather the signatures — Pioneer Group Inc. — is solely owned by Trevor Bragdon, the grass-roots director of Maine Leads.
Commission members also unanimously approved a recommendation that Kadey, the former political candidate from Princeton, be required to repay $2,546 in Maine Clean Election Act funds as well as a $500 fine.
Commission staffers allege that Kadey used Maine Clean Election Act money to buy a number of questionable items during his unsuccessful 2006 campaign for Senate District 29. Those items included $1,300 in camping equipment, a $464 infrared camera used by hunters and a roof rack for his truck.
Last year, the commission ordered Kadey to repay $2,076 in public campaign funds for purchases during his unsuccessful 2008 campaign. Those items included a GPS device and a fiberglass truck cap with a different roof rack.
“So today, he is the only candidate who has bought roof racks in two consecutive elections with Maine Clean Election funds,” said Jonathan Wayne, the commission’s executive director.
Kadey did not attend Thursday’s meeting. On Saturday, he declined to comment about the ethics commission’s recommendation when contacted by a Bangor Daily News reporter. But in paperwork filed with the commission, Kadey defended the purchases as legitimate expenses.
Kadey wrote that the camping equipment was used for his two-week campaign hike across the district while the infrared camera was purchased to try to catch people who were stealing his large, costly signs.
Kadey explained that other expenditures during the 2006 and 2008 campaigns were necessary because of a debilitating medical condition that required him to suddenly stop and rest while on the campaign trail.
But Wayne said that during the staff’s analysis of campaign expenditures they saw “a pattern of buying personal equipment that at best had only tangential relationship to his campaign.”
The commission also rejected a request by Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, to investigate whether an officer of the Maine State Employees Association union should be registered as a lobbyist because of her work in Augusta on legislative issues.