AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Ethics Commission on Monday unanimously found a Republican House candidate from Fort Kent and his campaign treasurer violated Maine election law when the treasurer spent money on the candidate’s behalf through an outside group for which he also serves as treasurer. The commission, however, held off on assessing penalties pending further investigation.
The five-member commission met in a special session Monday after the Maine Democratic Party filed a complaint alleging illegal coordination between the campaign for Mike Nadeau — who’s challenging Democratic Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake for an Aroostook County House seat — and an outside group that last week spent $1,475.16 on his behalf. Nadeau’s campaign treasurer, Philip Soucy of Fort Kent, is also treasurer for that group, Citizens for Effective Government.
“He put himself in a conflict-of-interest position that he shouldn’t have,” commission member Michael Healy said of Soucy. “It’s hard to say he didn’t coordinate it. He did it himself.”
The commission did not assess penalties Monday. Instead, it asked ethics commission staff to further investigate the situation, including whether Soucy knowingly made false statements asserting that no coordination took place, whether Citizens for Effective Government should have registered as a political action committee and whether Nadeau had any knowledge of the third-party expenditure supporting him.
Soucy participated in the meeting remotely via phone. Nadeau did not respond to an invitation to participate in the meeting.
Ethics commission staff members started investigating Friday after Soucy signed off on the $1,475 Citizens for Effective Government expenditure and submitted a report to the ethics commission.
Under Maine election law, outside groups are allowed to spend money in support of candidates as long as the groups don’t coordinate with the candidates affected by the expenditure. If a candidate and outside group do coordinate, the expenditure counts as a direct contribution to the candidate’s campaign.
In Nadeau’s case, he’s receiving public campaign funds under the Maine Clean Election Act and is prohibited from accepting contributions.
Soucy signed a notarized document Friday indicating he was treasurer for Citizens for Effective Government. The document he signed also indicated the group didn’t spend the money in coordination with Nadeau’s campaign or any agent of the campaign. Ethics commission records, however, list Soucy as Nadeau’s campaign treasurer.
“A review of the paperwork looks on its face that Mr. Soucy is on both sides of this fence. The statute is pretty clear: You cannot do that,” said Democratic Party lawyer Kate Knox. “Mr. Soucy is the treasurer. He’s the candidate’s agent, and his actions alone are enough to find the campaign in violation.”
But Soucy wasn’t necessarily an agent of the campaign — and therefore unable to coordinate for the campaign with the outside group — because his involvement as campaign treasurer was limited, argued William Logan, Soucy’s lawyer.
“I was treasurer in name only,” Soucy said. “I did not do any of the work. [Nadeau] did it all.”
“I believe in looking back, just to avoid a presumption [of coordination], he would not have done this,” Logan told the ethics commission. “He didn’t have any specific communications with Mr. Nadeau.”
Regardless of how much work a campaign treasurer does, however, he’s one of only two members of the campaign committee and represents the campaign, said Knox, the Democratic Party lawyer.
“In this instance, he’s absolutely responsible,” she said. “He is presumed, and the commission rules sort of acknowledge this, to have knowledge equivalent to the candidate.”
Much of the ethics commission discussion centered on the source of funding for Citizens for Effective Government and whether Soucy knowingly signed a false statement indicating the group had no coordination with Nadeau.
Citizens for Effective Government is not registered as a political action committee since it’s raised and spent less than $1,500, the threshold for registering as a committee. Soucy told ethics commissioners Monday that the group raised money only for the mail piece and that three people — including two Connecticut residents with summer homes in Fort Kent — contributed $500 each in cash. Soucy, who’s active in Fort Kent Republican circles, said he worked with two others to produce the mailing.
Soucy had given different information about the funding source over the weekend to ethics commission executive director Jonathan Wayne, telling him that the funding came in small increments — less than $100 in some cases — from a number of donors.
“I was being interrogated without an attorney and I was a little bit apprehensive,” he said Monday. “If I said I received smaller amounts, I was in error.”
Commission chairman Walter McKee asked Soucy if he was aware he was signing a sworn statement last week indicating there was no coordination between Citizens for Effective Government and the Nadeau campaign.
“I read the thing and scanned it in a hurry,” he said. “I guess I probably didn’t really know what I was signing.”
Monday’s ethics commission meeting came less than a week after commissioners ruled on another Democratic Party complaint alleging that Bangor Republican Sen. Nichi Farnham improperly coordinated with a political action committee to funnel $73,000 into advertising targeting her opponent, Democrat Geoffrey Gratwick.
Democrats filed the complaint because Farnham was listed as the political action committee’s principal officer.
Ethics commissioners Wednesday determined Farnham wasn’t at fault, but that the political action committee had failed to update its registration documents to reflect that Farnham had resigned as a committee officer. The commission fined the political committee, the Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC, $250 for that violation.