AUGUSTA, Maine — Staff of the Maine Ethics Commission denied Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Richardson’s request for public financing because of potential fraud committed by campaign workers, according to documents obtained Sunday.
In a major blow to Richardson’s bid for his party’s nomination, commission staff notified the former speaker of the House and economic development commissioner late last week that he had failed to qualify for funding through the Maine Clean Election Act because several $5 contributions were falsified as well as other serious violations.
“Staff has found that certain campaign workers falsely stated that they collected qualifying contributions,” Commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne wrote to Richardson last Thursday. “The Commission staff also declines to grant MCEA certification because of the submission of documents containing material false statements and other substantial violations of the MCEA.”
The Richardson campaign did not return phone calls seeking comment Saturday or Sunday. Richardson is expected to hold a news conference this morning in Brunswick.
In his 13-page letter, Wayne said there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Richardson.
“The staff’s investigation did not reveal any indication that the candidate himself made false statements in documents submitted to the commission,” the letter says.
Richardson already has qualified to appear on the Democrats’ June 8 primary ballot.
But with just six weeks left before the primary, the loss of public campaign money raises serious questions about whether Richardson could compete financially against the four other Democratic candidates — even without a potential fraud scandal.
Former Attorney General Steven Rowe of Portland announced last week that his campaign had raised more than $424,000 as of mid-April. Businesswoman Rosa Scarcelli of Portland has until Tuesday to file her April campaign finance reports but already had raised nearly $250,000 as of January.
The two Democrats who already have qualified for public campaign financing — Senate President Libby Mitchell of Vassalboro and former Conservation Commissioner Pat McGowan of Hallowell — are slated to receive between $400,000 and $600,000 each from the voter-approved Maine Clean Election Fund.
In his letter to Richardson, Wayne said the campaign had failed to meet three of the 10 criteria to qualify for public financing, including failure to obtain the required 3,250 signed forms of voters that must accompany $5 contributions to the Clean Election Fund.
The violations detailed in the letter include: collecting signatures from voters on the forms without collecting the $5 in qualifying contributions; contributing the $5 or allowing others to contribute $5 on behalf of individual voters; signing voters’ names to money orders; and circulators signing forms that they did not circulate.
The letter details instances where commission staff — or in two cases law enforcement officers — found that persons listed as signing the form and contributing $5 had not done so. The most egregious violation appears to have been done by one circulator in northern Maine.
The unidentified person claimed to have collected 155 forms in Fort Kent and accompanying contributions, but when commission investigators contacted 66 of the individuals, only 35 of those individuals confirmed they had made a contribution.
Another unidentified circulator claimed to have collected 34 forms and contributions in Perry, but of the 17 staff investigators were able to reach, nine said they had contributed but eight said they had not.
The commission staff indicated there are several other “questionable” forms where staff has not been able to contact the registered voter listed on the form.
While many of the allegations in the letter are criminal violations of the law, Attorney General Janet Mills said Sunday her office has not started an investigation although her office has provided legal advice to the commission.
“The matter is in the hands of the Ethics-Elections Commission, not in the Attorney General’s Office,” she said. Mills declined to comment further on a possible criminal investigation by her office.
Wayne declined to comment Sunday on the specifics of the Richardson case during an interview with the Bangor Daily News. He noted that candidates — or anyone else — can appeal staff decisions to the full commission, which is scheduled to meet in Augusta on Thursday.
“I’m hoping to hear from the Richardson campaign about what we are finding,” Wayne said.
Rumors began swirling about the fate of Richardson’s application for public financing several weeks ago. While Mitchell, McGowan and Republican Sen. Peter Mills’ applications were promptly approved, Richardson’s application was in limbo for weeks.
As days passed without a commission decision, speculation grew in Maine political circles that there were serious problems with the Richardson application. The campaign’s troubles became a popular topic on some Maine politics websites and online message boards.
Those discussions intensified over the weekend after blogger Matt Gagnon posted an article on his site, www.pinetreepolitics.com, citing anonymous sources claiming Richardson’s request for public financing had been denied and that the Attorney General’s office had investigated.
Mills disagreed with the use of the word “investigation,” however, saying her staff had helped “in the development of facts” during the commission staff’s review.
Mal Leary works for Capitol News Service; Kevin Miller writes for the Bangor Daily News.