AUGUSTA, Maine — A bipartisan group of state lawmakers continue to hone their focus on reforming Maine’s Clean Election Act in efforts to keep those running for state office from forming and managing political action committees.
The system is ripe for corruption and fraught with ethical pitfalls as candidates accept donations for their leadership PACs from individuals, private businesses and even industry lobbyists, according to lawmakers seeking the reforms.
On Monday, the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee heard two bills aimed at outlawing the practice of lawmakers forming “leadership PACs,” which some have described as a glaring loophole in a law aimed at limiting the influence of money in state politics.
Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, said his bill, LD 532, would prohibit those who accept state Clean Election funds from forming PACs, which in recent years have collected millions of dollars from private donors and corporate interests for campaigns.
“Something is terribly broken with the Maine Clean Elections system,” Brakey told the committee.
Brakey said one state senator signed up to be a Clean Election candidate in 2014 and collected $20,000 in state funds for his campaign, then also operated a leadership PAC that collected more than $205,000 in private donations.
Campaign finance records show the candidate was Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland.
While state law prohibits candidates who accept Clean Election funds from collecting private donations for their own campaigns, it doesn’t prevent them from operating PACs to raise money for other PACs or a political party’s PAC, which in turn spends the money in support of or in opposition to other candidates.
Often candidates deemed to be in “safe districts,” where they do not face competitive races or those in key leadership positions in the Legislature set up PACs to help their parties win seats and power. Donors to the PACs include individuals, companies, trade associations and often even the lobbyists who work for them, campaign finance records show.
The donors to Alfond’s PAC in 2014 included entities ranging from Wal-Mart to Poland Spring parent company Nestle Waters to the Maine Brewers’ Guild to Anheuser-Busch to the Law Offices of Joe Bornstein.
Brakey said his bill prohibits publicly funded candidates from being the primary officers or decision-makers in any PAC.
While it may be difficult to prove any direct connections between donations and policy decisions or votes, the practice doesn’t pass the “straight-face test,” Brakey said.
Another proposal, LD 619, offered by Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, would outlaw PACs for any candidate running for the Legislature, regardless of whether they take public funding or are traditionally financed with private donations.
Campaign finance records for 2014 show Alfond donated much of the money his Alfond Business, Community and Democracy PAC, raised to the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, another PAC for which Alfond also was an officer.
Alfond defended the practice Tuesday, first saying it isn’t illegal under Maine law, then suggesting it actually was a more transparent way to raise campaign funds because the public can trace where the PAC money originates and which lawmaker was responsible for collecting the donation.
Alfond said if the Legislature were to change the system, he and others would abide by the change; but without first reviewing both bills, he would not say whether he would support the measures.
Chenette pointed to the case of former Sen. John Tuttle, a Democrat from Sanford who ran a PAC that collected donations from entities subject to the jurisdiction of the committee he co-chaired, Veterans and Legal Affairs — which also has jurisdiction over campaign finance law — to highlight how ripe Maine’s system is for corruption.
An October 2014 investigation by nonprofit Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting revealed Tuttle used at least $17,000 from his PAC to buy automobile tires, pay for car repairs, reimburse himself for travel and pay his wife and daughter for computer services and keeping his books.
The report also disclosed that many of Tuttle’s PAC donations came from gambling and liquor industry lobbyists or companies, most of which were working for or against legislation before Tuttle’s committee.
“Interesting that those industries would want to donate money to the chair of a committee of oversight,” Chenette told the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Monday. “Imagine having to decide public policy … on this committee through a cloud of political contributions from the very industries you are suppose to be regulating.”
While none of Tuttle’s actions were illegal under Maine law, his practices did raise eyebrows and concerns about the way lawmakers use and disburse money from the PACs they create. After serving 28 years in the Legislature, Tuttle lost his re-election bid in 2014 to Robert Woodsome, a Waterboro Republican who won nearly 60 percent of the vote.
John Brautigam, a former state lawmaker and lawyer who works with Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said his organization supports the bills being offered by Brakey and Chenette, though they favor Chenette’s bill.
Brautigam said possible critics of the proposed changes will argue the policy shift would infringe on a candidate’s First Amendment rights, but that logic is flawed.
“You still have plenty of avenues to participate vigorously and aggressively in advocating for the people you believe and the party that you believe in or the causes that you believe in, in a way that is transparent and is democratic and addresses the concerns of these sort of private individual PACs,” Brautigam said.
No opposition to either bill was presented to the committee Monday.
The committee will continue to review the bills in an upcoming work session, when the measures could be folded into one bill or amended before the committee votes on a recommendation for the full Legislature.