Bangor residents call out state senator for ‘grievous infraction’ of campaign ethics, Farnham says it was clerical slip-up
BANGOR, Maine — A group of Bangor residents has called for state Sen. Nichi Farnham, R-Bangor, to be held accountable for what they called “one of the most egregious campaign violations” in the history of Maine Legislative elections.
The group took issue with the purchase of $73,000 in television advertising targeting her opponent, Bangor Democrat Geoffrey Gratwick, that was paid for by a political action committee for which Farnham was listed as a principal officer.
Farnham on Tuesday afternoon attributed her appearance on the PAC document to a “clerical error,” and asked that Bangor residents wait for the Maine Ethics Commission to hold a session on the complaint on Oct. 31.
Gwethalyn Phillips and Scott Ruffner, organizers of a press conference that drew about 25 residents to Bangor Public Library on Tuesday afternoon, argued Farnham’s association with the PAC was a clear violation of Maine ethics laws.
“We need our lawmakers making the law, not running from it or thinking they are above it,” said Ruffner, one of the organizers of the press conference. “Bangor voters deserve to know why Nichi Farnham thinks she can have it both ways. As far as I can tell, either she doesn’t know the law or she doesn’t care about the law. Either way, Bangor voters should be concerned.”
In a phone interview Tuesday afternoon, Farnham said she agreed to be listed by the PAC in March — shortly after filing paperwork to run for re-election — but only as “a placeholder” because others in the party were being termed out. She was supposed to be replaced quickly by someone else, but that didn’t happen.
“Obviously, I would not have intentionally wanted my name left on there,” Farnham said, adding that she understands ethics laws and realized that staying on the list could have led to problems.
The Maine Democratic Party filed a formal complaint against Farnham earlier this month.
“The allegations in the Democratic Party’s complaint are just that — allegations,” Farnham said, adding that she would ask “everyone to suspend judgment to allow the ethics commission to do its work.”
“I believe that when the whole truth comes out, it will be clear that I was not involved in the decisions or initiatives of the PAC,” Farnham said, “and the complaint against me will be resolved on this basis.”
Phillips and Ruffner said they were disappointed the ethics commission was waiting until Oct. 31 to hear the matter because of its potential effect on the Nov. 6 election just one week later.
The Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC’s registration paperwork, filed with the state Ethics Commission on Feb. 3, lists Farnham and Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, as the principal officers and the “primary fundraisers and decision makers.”
“The complaint alleges that I coordinated with a PAC known as the Maine Republican Majority PAC,” Farnham said in a statement released Tuesday. “I agreed to have my name filed as a PAC representative early in 2012, but I never participated in a single meeting, conversation or phone call with anyone about the PAC’s spending, strategy or any issues surrounding any Senate campaign, including my own.”
She said the confusion was caused by a “clerical error,” and that partisan politicians were using it to “attack my integrity and that of my family.” She said she had expected the PAC to remove her name from the document earlier, but it was not removed until Oct. 5, the day after Democrats filed their complaint.
Maine election law allows outside groups such as political action committees and political parties to make unlimited independent expenditures supporting or opposing candidates as long as the expenditures aren’t coordinated with candidates. Under state election law, if a political committee coordinates an expenditure with a candidate, the expenditure counts as a contribution to the candidate.
Farnham is running as a publicly funded candidate under the Maine Clean Election Act, which means she’s prohibited from accepting any kind of contribution.
The week before Democrats filed their complaint against Farnham’s involvement in the PAC, they filed another alleging that she was late in accounting for expenditures related to a television ad she produced for her campaign. Farnham said her campaign treasurer has addressed that issue by amending the campaign’s quarterly finance report.
“In an era where there is much concern about the corrosive effect of money in our campaigns for public office, the state of Maine has been a leader in making candidates and their campaigns accountable and transparent in how money is used in those campaigns,” Ruffner said.
He called on residents to “demand accountability.”
BDN writer Matthew Stone contributed to this report.