June 22, 2018
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Ethics panel cracks down on attack ads

By Kevin Miller, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Ethics Commission ruled Thursday that a national Republican group failed to promptly notify the state about $400,000 in campaign ads purchased for state Senate races.
The Maine Democratic Party had filed a complaint with the commission alleging that the Republican State Leadership Committee may have purposely delayed filing campaign disclosure reports in hopes of robbing Democratic candidates of the time and money needed to respond to attack ads.
The commission agreed on Thursday that the committee had filed its report late but deferred any decision about a possible financial penalty until next month.
Based in Alexandria, Va., the Republican State Leadership Committee works nationally to elect GOP candidates to state legislatures as well as the offices of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Last Saturday, the committee notified the Maine Ethics Commission that it had spent roughly $400,000 on Friday on television and radio ads as well as fliers in five hotly contested Maine Senate races.
The vast majority of the money went to purchase air time for negative ads against Democratic candidates. For instance, in the District 32 race that includes Bangor, the committee spent $63,900 on ads opposing Sen. Joe Perry and $6,900 on ads supporting his rival, Republican Nichi Farnham.
The organization also spent $65,400 opposing Rep. Jim Schatz, D-Blue Hill, in the District 28 race in Hancock County. The committee spent $6,900 supporting his Republican opponent, Rep. Brian Langley of Ellsworth.
But the Maine Democratic Party said the RSLC had to have spent considerable sums producing those ads and fliers well before Friday and therefore should have reported the expenditures much earlier.
The Democrats contend that by delaying filing with the commission, the RSLC also delayed the Democratic candidates from receiving additional money — or “matching funds” — through the state’s public campaign financing system.
Senate candidates participating in the “clean elections” program can receive up to $38,000 in matching funds in order to help them compete with privately financed campaigns or expenditures from outside groups such as the RSLC.
“What this is encouraging is foot-dragging among [groups] who drop very large contributions late in the process,” Dan Walker, an attorney with the Democratic Party, told the commission Thursday.
The commission agreed that violations occurred but deferred judgment on the size of the fine against the RSLC until further investigation is complete.
In another complaint filed by the Maine Democratic Party, the commission found that the campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage had wrongly accepted donations from a family that exceeded the state’s $750-per-person limit.
The campaign said Thursday that the $550 overpayment was a clerical and accounting error and agreed to return the money.
But the commission found insufficient evidence of any wrongdoing in the 27 other cases raised by the Democratic Party.
According to the LePage campaign, most of the overpayments occurred among married couples with a joint checking account who intended to each donate to the campaign. But an error occurred when the contribution was credited to only one spouse, causing them to exceed the $750 limit for individuals.
Campaign spokesman John Morris pointed out that LePage has received more than 5,000 donations and that Democrats had only identified one violation.
But Arden Manning of the Maine Democratic Party said the problems identified within LePage’s bookkeeping represented “sloppy accounting by a person running on fiscal responsibility.”

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