Ethics panel orders anti-tax group to file campaign reports

Posted Oct. 01, 2009, at 10:12 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Ethics Commission ruled Thursday that the conservative public policy organization Maine Leads should have filed financial disclosure reports related to anti-tax referendum campaigns.

But the commission disagreed with Maine Leads’ critics who had said the nonprofit organization violated other campaign finance laws by focusing on anti-tax ballot measures.

Maine Leads was created in the fall of 2007 to help strengthen the effectiveness of the conservative base in Maine, according to the group’s executive director, Roy Lenardson. Soon after its creation, Maine Leads provided $25,000 in seed money to two political action committees, or PACs, working to reduce the excise tax and to pass the Taxpayers Bill of Rights II.

Additionally, Maine Leads gave $160,500 to a firm to gather the signatures needed to trigger a statewide vote on those tax measures and a third unsuccessful ballot question dealing with health care. Mainers will cast votes on TABOR II and the excise tax ballot measure on Nov. 3.

Former state lawmaker Deborah Hutton of Bowdoinham filed a formal complaint with the ethics commission suggesting that Maine Leads was actually a PAC rather than a nonprofit. But because Maine Leads never registered as a PAC, the organization was able to hide from the public the identity of the groups financing the campaigns, Hutton said.

On Thursday, the commission ruled that, under the rules in place at the time, Maine Leads was not required to register as a PAC because its primary purpose did not appear to be initiating or promoting the ballot measures. Roughly 54 percent of Maine Leads’ spending went to the ballot initiatives.

Commissioners and staff said they would prefer to have more history to determine the major purpose of an organization.

“In one election cycle, it may be a ballot question that is the overriding focus of that organization. In another election cycle, it might be education,” said Michael Friedman, the commission’s chairman.

But the commission ruled that Maine Leads should have filed campaign finance reports in 2007, 2008 and early 2009 as a “ballot question committee.” That would have required Maine Leads to identify the source and purpose of any donations in excess of $100.

The commission gave Maine Leads two weeks to file reports dating back to January 2008. Maine Leads’ attorney, Dan Billings, said the organization did not have any objections to filing the reports.

Benjamin Grant, an attorney for Hutton, did not object to the commission’s finding because it still required Maine Leads to file campaign reports.

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