The Maine Ethics Panel on Friday recommended that an out-of-state Republican political action committee be fined $41,000 for campaign finance violations that occurred in the last two weeks of the 2010 election.
The recommendation against the Virginia-based Republican State Leadership Committee, made by members of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, will be considered at the commission’s Feb. 17 meeting.
According to the commission, the Virginia PAC spent nearly $400,000 on mailings, television and radio advertisements supporting Republican candidates in five MaineSenate races, filing their independent expenditures on Oct. 23, 2010.
The Maine Democratic Party filed a complaint alleging that the expenditure dates were inaccurate and that the report was filed late.
According to the ethics commission, the RSLC’s late expenditure filing put the five Democratic candidates at a significant disadvantage by delaying the release of Maine Clean Election Funds to them by several days.
“The penalties are potentially quite large because the RSLC’s delay in filing independent expenditure reports delayed five Senate candidates in receiving or spending more than $160,000 to promote their election,” Jonathan Wayne, the commission’s executive director, wrote in a notice of proposed penalties. “Regardless whether the violation was intentional, the late filing had a significant impact on these candidates’ ability to spend campaign funds in the last two weeks before the November 2, 2010 general election.”
As soon as the RSLC made an expenditure filing on Saturday, Oct. 23, the commission telephoned the candidates to alert them about the “very large independent expenditures against them,” Wayne wrote in the notice of proposed penalties.
“We authorized them to spend up to the maximum in matching funds,” he wrote.
But most of those funds weren’t released by the state until Tuesday, Oct. 26. If the RSLC had filed its report on Oct. 21, eligible candidates would have received the funds from the state by Friday, Oct. 22, or Saturday, Oct. 23.
“Four days is a significant period of time during the last two weeks before a general election,” Wayne wrote.
Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said Saturday in a press release that the money spent “to attack” legislative candidates was the largest violation of campaign finance law in Maine history and that the fine, if assessed, would be the largest penalty.
“This significant fine sends a clear message to out-of-state groups that Maine’s campaign finance laws are among the toughest in the country, and that Maine people put a high premium on transparency,” he said. “While this ruling is obviously too late to influence the results, we know that these shadowy corporate interests will target Maine again. It is critical that Maine people know who is trying to buy their way into the state legislature.”
Adam Temple, a spokesman for the RSLC, said Saturday evening that the PAC has cooperated with the Maine ethics investigation “since the beginning.”
“We will continue to cooperate and don’t believe that we acted in a manner to intentionally violate the rules,” he said.
The five Democratic Senate candidates targeted by the RSLC all lost their election bids, and one of them, former Rep. Joseph Perry of Bangor, said Saturday that’s no coincidence.
“They dumped more than $70,000 into my race in the last week,” Perry said Saturday. “They hid the fact that they were doing it until well beyond the deadline — that’s why they’re being fined. They used the money for negative, false recommendations that you can’t really respond to.”
James Schatz of Blue Hill, Deborah Simpson of Auburn, Patsy Crockett of Augusta and Pamela Trinward of Waterville were the other four Democraticcandidates named by the ethics panel.
They were beaten by Republicans Nichi Farnham of Bangor, Brian Langley of Ellsworth, Lois Snowe-Mello of Poland, Roger Katz of Augusta and Thomas Martin Jr. of Benton.
Schatz additionally has filed a libel suit against the RSLC, claiming that ads the PAC ran before the election were “false and defamatory.”
Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster said Saturday that the state GOP officials “literally had no knowledge” of what the Virginia PAC had planned.
“Frankly, if they had asked me, we wouldn’t have spent the money the way they did,” he said Saturday. “The money could have been used much more effectively in other races.”
Webster said that $40,000 seems like an excessive amount of money for a fine, and that it is likely that any outside group looking to spend money in Maine could run afoul of the Maine Clean Elections Act, including Democrats.
“Unless they know what Maine laws are, this kind of thing can happen,” Webster said.
But as far as Perry, who spent 14 years in the Legislature, is concerned, the influx and success of out-of-state funding is problematic for Maine voters.
According to the website FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenburg Public Policy Center, the RSLC is “heavily backed by big business,” including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Justice Partnership, Wal-Mart, Pfizer and the tobacco company Reynolds American.
“Look where the money’s coming from,” Perry said. “Half a million dollars is a drop in the bucket. That is cheap money for them to own the Maine Legislature.”
He said the political climate in the state was much more hard-nosed in 2010 than in previous years.
“I’m not upset about the fact that I’m not there anymore, but I am upset at the way politics in this state has gone this term,” Perry said. “In any of these races that [Republicans] thought they had a shot at, the truth really did not matter. It’s bad for the process. It’s bad for the public. But it was successful. The fact that it was so successful, I worry.”
Webster rejects this view.
“The Republican Party and any group I was involved in did not spend a dime [providing information] that wasn’t factual,” he said. “We talked specifically, exclusively about voting records.”