BRUNSWICK, Maine — John Richardson’s bid to capture the Democratic nomination for governor ended Monday in the wake of allegations that several campaign workers forged signatures and falsified documents to help the candidate qualify for public financing.
In an emotional speech, Richardson announced he was withdrawing from the race despite beliefs he could prove his campaign had collected enough small donations — excluding the tainted contributions — to qualify for funding through the Maine Clean Election Act.
A former speaker of the House and state economic development commissioner, neither Richardson himself nor his senior campaign staff were implicated in the alleged fraud.
But with just six weeks remaining before the June 8 primary, Richardson said he decided it would consume too much time and effort to appeal the Maine Ethics Commission staff decision to deny him public campaign financing.
Without that public money, Richardson would face a monumental task of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in the next month and a half in order to compete financially with the four other Democratic candidates.
“This is the hardest decision I have ever had to make,” Richardson said. “Anyone who knows me knows that I do not run from a fight. I am deeply disappointed by the commission’s decision, but I respect it. I respect the process.”
Richardson’s withdrawal came a few days after news began leaking out that Ethics Commission staff had found numerous instances of potential fraud while reviewing the Brunswick candidate’s application for public financing.
Commission staff eliminated more than 100 “qualifying contributions” collected by unnamed campaign workers — one paid worker and two volunteers — in Fort Kent, Perry and southern Maine on suspicion of fraud. Staff zeroed in on the three workers after red flags were raised during random checks of contributors and after receiving complaints.
Gubernatorial candidates wishing to receive up to $1.8 million in public financing are required to collect at least 3,250 donations of at least $5 for the Clean Election Fund in order to demonstrate adequate public support for their campaign.
The serious violations identified by staff included forging voters’ signatures on money orders; campaign staff contributing the $5 on behalf of voters; collecting signatures from voters on the forms without collecting the $5 contribution; and circulators signing forms that they did not personally circulate.
As a result of those eliminations and other disqualified donations, Richardson fell 82 contributions short of the 3,250 needed to participate in Maine’s Clean Election Act program.
“The Legislature has set high standards for candidates for governor to receive public campaign financing, and the commission is checking very closely to make sure candidates only receive that money if they qualify correctly,” Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the commission, said Monday in an interview.
Wayne stressed again Monday that the staff found no evidence that Richardson knew about the allegedly false statements. For his part, Richardson said he was leaving it up to authorities to decide whether to seek criminal charges.
“I think in some cases there may have been honest, stupid mistakes, but in other cases there may not have been,” Richardson said. “But that is not for me to judge.”
The Attorney General’s Office assisted commission staff during the review. Maine officials historically have sought to prosecute people who knowingly violate the Clean Election Act.
Kate Simmons, spokeswoman for Attorney General Janet Mills, said the office as a matter of policy does not confirm or deny the existence of criminal investigations.
Several observers speculated privately on Monday that Richardson may have chosen to exit the race rather than appeal because of perceptions among some that his campaign was losing speed. Richardson said he did what he felt was in the best interest of the Democratic Party and Maine people.
“I could get the 3,250. I know I can,” he said. “But it’s not the right thing to do right now because it is so late in the process. I would be wasting public money in this campaign. And it’s not the right thing to do when the process is so tainted.”
Richardson’s exit from the campaign leaves four Democrats headed into the June primary: businesswoman Rosa Scarcelli of Portland, Senate President Libby Mitchell of Vassalboro, former Attorney General Steven Rowe of Portland and former conservation commissioner Pat McGowan of Hallowell.
McGowan and Mitchell as well as Republican candidate Sen. Peter Mills of Cornville already have qualified to receive public campaign financing. Each of them will receive between $400,000 and $600,000 through the primary.
Scarcelli has criticized her opponents’ use of the Clean Election Fund at a time when the state is cutting its budget. She called Richardson’s withdrawal due to alleged illegal activities “unfortunate” but said the incident “raises serious questions about how and why this happened in the first place.” She called on Gov. John Baldacci to appoint an outside, independent counsel to investigate the issue.
But Alison Smith of the nonpartisan coalition Maine Citizens for Clean Elections said the Richardson affair shows the strength of the anti-fraud system.
For instance, the process was changed recently to require donor signatures on all money orders and to require that circulators sign a statement on the contribution form. The latter allows commission staff to quickly pull any forms submitted by circulators suspected of violations.
“I think it shows that the Clean Elections system has a lot of very important accountability measures built in and that they worked,” Smith said.
Ironically, Richardson’s name likely still will appear on the Democratic ticket in June.
Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said his office tries to have ballots printed at least 45 days before the election in order to have them available for overseas military personnel. Forty-five days from June 8 was last weekend.
Reprinting the ballots now would cost thousands of dollars, Dunlap said. He added that a vote for Richardson on the June ballot would not be counted.