AUGUSTA, Maine — The head of a conservative public policy group that helped bankroll two anti-tax measures on the November ballot defended his organization Tuesday against allegations that it violated Maine’s campaign finance laws.
Roy Lenardson, the executive director of Maine Leads, told members of the state Ethics Commission that he and several others started the nonprofit organization in the fall of 2007 in order to help strengthen the effectiveness of the conservative base in Maine.
But one month after it was created, Maine Leads provided $25,000 in seed money to two political action committees, or PACs, working to reduce the excise tax and to pass the Taxpayers Bill of Rights II. Additionally, Maine Leads gave $160,500 to a firm to gather the signatures needed to trigger a statewide vote on those tax measures and a third unsuccessful ballot question dealing with health care.
Those donations prompted a former state lawmaker, Deborah Hutton of Bowdoinham, to file a complaint with the Maine Ethics Commission that Maine Leads should be considered a PAC rather than a nonprofit. Hutton contends that by not registering as a PAC, Maine Leads was able to circumnavigate campaign finance laws that provide the public with the identity of the groups behind political campaigns.
Lenardson testified to the commission on Tuesday that while the ballot issues received a significant portion of Maine Leads’ money, they were not the major focus of the energies of the organization’s staff.
“We wanted it to be part of our mission, but not our mission,” Lenardson said.
Lenardson estimated that Maine Leads’ staff spent 4 percent of their time on the ballot issues. The remaining time was devoted to working on specific issues, such as government transparency, and building a better political model to help what Lenardson called the conservative “middle right” be more successful in Maine.
But Hutton’s attorney, Benjamin Grant, argued that Lenardson’s statements about the original mission of Maine Leads are largely irrelevant. The reality is that Maine Leads provided the vast majority of the funding to get the issues on the ballot, he said.
“This is about what they did,” Grant said.
Hutton and Grant also have pointed out numerous links between Maine Leads and the ballot campaigns.
For instance, Lenardson was the lead signatory on the excise tax referendum application filed with the Secretary of State’s Office in August 2007. He also was listed as the principal officer of the PAC formed to help fund the three ballot measures. Another Maine Leads staff member, Trevor Bragdon, was listed as treasurer of the PAC.
Additionally, Bragdon is the owner of the Pioneer Group, the firm that Maine Leads paid $160,500 to gather signatures.
Lenardson expressed frustration several times Tuesday at how much money the ballot initiatives consumed.
“This was not the path that I had in mind,” he told the commission.
Instead, Maine Leads was created to get away from what he said was an overly heavy focus in Maine’s conservative circles on referendum campaigns to attempt change. Lenardson said Maine Leads, which received more than $400,000 from three national conservative groups, was attempting to mimic the type of local grass-roots organization and collaboration among various interest groups that has made the “political left” so successful in Maine and elsewhere.
“It really was [formed] strictly out of envy with how the left was organized,” said Lenardson, a veteran political activist in Maine. “I wanted an organization that could compete with the left.”
Both sides agreed that changes made to Maine’s campaign finance laws in June 2008 would require Maine Leads to register as either a PAC or a ballot question committee today. The issue that the commission will have to decide, however, is whether Maine Leads’ activities before June 30, 2008, were in violation of campaign finance laws on the books at that time.
“That wasn’t the state of the law in 2007 and 2008,” Lenardson’s attorney, Dan Billings, said after Tuesday’s hearing.
The commission has asked for additional information from Maine Leads before taking up the issue again at its next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 1.