BANGOR, Maine — State Sen. Nichi Farnham on Wednesday responded to the Maine Democratic Party’s request for a Maine Ethics Commission investigation into allegations that she improperly coordinated with a political action committee to funnel $73,000 into advertising targeting her opponent.
In a letter to ethics commission staff, attorney William Logan asserted that Farnham never discussed the advertising expenditure with the political action committee, the Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC, and that she wasn’t aware of the ad buy.
Democrats earlier this month filed a formal complaint with the Maine Ethics Commission alleging that Farnham, a first-term state senator from Bangor, violated rules surrounding so-called independent expenditures because Farnham was listed as a principal officer and decision maker for the Senate Republican Majority PAC when the committee purchased $73,000 in television advertising targeting her opponent, Democrat Geoffrey Gratwick.
“There were no discussions whatsoever between Sen. Farnham and the PAC regarding any of the PAC’s independent expenditures,” Logan wrote. “In short, Sen. Farnham had no knowledge of any expenditures made by the PAC, and played no role in making any decisions related to expenditures. That is quite simply because Sen. Farnham had disassociated from the PAC well before the PAC began to make decisions related to independent expenditures.”
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. But even candidates who don’t receive public funds can’t accept contributions larger than $350.
The Democrats’ complaint stemmed from $102,000 in TV advertising the Senate Republican Majority PAC recently purchased targeting Democratic Senate candidates in three districts. The bulk of the ad buy targeted Gratwick, according to an expenditure report the PAC filed Wednesday with the Maine Ethics Commission.
Maine Democratic Party chairman Ben Grant called the case “an egregious violation” of state election law. “The fact that it has been committed by the chair of the committee responsible for Maine campaign finance laws makes it particularly galling,” he said.
Farnham is chairwoman of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over election matters that come before the Legislature.
When the Democrats filed their complaint, the Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC’s registration paperwork, filed with the state Ethics Commission on Feb. 3, listed Farnham and Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, as the principal officers and the “primary fundraisers and decision makers.”
Farnham said earlier this month she agreed to be listed temporarily as a principal officer for the PAC, but that she never intended to be involved with the committee during the election season. A consultant for the PAC, James Cote, said her name should have been removed from the paperwork and that it was “an administrative oversight” that her name remained on the paperwork.
In an affidavit included with her response to the ethics commission, Farnham said she has had no involvement with the committee since March.
The ethics commission will take up the complaint at an Oct. 31 meeting.
Since filing the complaint, Democrats and their allies have made the ethics allegations against Farnham a political rallying point. Some 25 Bangor residents called attention to the allegations Tuesday at a rally organized in part by the state Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. And a political committee backed by Democratic-leaning groups, the Committee to Rebuild Maine’s Middle Class, has produced anti-Farnham TV and radio ads detailing the Democrats’ complaint.
Republicans also have filed an ethics commission complaint against Gratwick, alleging some of his campaign mail lacked a required funding disclosure statement.
The Senate Republican Majority PAC is the state Republican party’s primary campaign arm for state Senate seats.