Ethics Commission staff: Nichi Farnham not at fault for illegal coordination with committee

Posted Oct. 24, 2012, at 7:06 p.m.
Nichi Farnham
Nichi Farnham

AUGUSTA, Maine — A Republican senator from Bangor facing allegations that she improperly coordinated with a political action committee to funnel $73,000 into advertising targeting her opponent is not at fault, according to staff at the Maine Ethics Commission.

However, the political action committee that listed Sen. Nichi Farnham as one of its primary officers until earlier this month should have removed her name from its registration paperwork months ago, and the committee could be subject to a $250 penalty as a result.

Those are the findings of the Maine Ethics Commission’s staff in response to allegations by the state Democratic Party that Farnham violated rules surrounding independent expenditures earlier this month. In a formal complaint filed with the ethics commission, the party pointed out that 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.

The five-member Maine Ethics Commission will meet on Oct. 31 to accept or reject the staff members’ findings and decide whether to fine the PAC for violating a Maine law requiring political committees to update their registration documents within 10 days of changing officers.

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.

While Farnham was listed as an officer for the Senate Republican Majority PAC, commission staff wrote in their recommendation that the Democratic Party provided no evidence proving that Farnham actually coordinated with the PAC to spend money on her race.

An attorney for Farnham filed a response to the Democratic Party’s charges last week that asserted, in three sworn affidavits, that Farnham never discussed the advertising expenditure with the political action committee and that she wasn’t aware of the ad buy.

In her affidavit, Farnham said she has had no involvement with the committee since March. She said earlier this month she had agreed to be listed temporarily as a principal officer for the PAC, but that she had never intended to be involved with the committee during the election season.

The ethics commission staff said Farnham’s name should have been removed from the PAC’s paperwork in March or April and that removing her name was the PAC’s responsibility, not Farnham’s.

Since filing the complaint, Democrats and their allies have made the ethics allegations against Farnham a political rallying point, calling attention to them last week at a rally at the Bangor Public Library and in a series of anti-Farnham radio and TV ads sponsored by the Committee to Rebuild Maine’s Middle Class, a political committee backed by Democratic-leaning groups.

Republicans also have filed an ethics commission complaint against Gratwick, alleging some of his campaign mail lacked a required funding disclosure statement. The ethics commission staff recommended that commission members find Gratwick in violation of election law because of that, but that the candidate not be fined.

The Senate Republican Majority PAC is the state Republican party’s primary campaign arm for state Senate seats. The group has spent $136,000 on the Farnham-Gratwick race so far this election season.

As of Wednesday, outside groups supporting Farnham and Gratwick had spent $326,000 on their race. Their race has attracted more spending from outside groups than any other state legislative contest this election cycle.

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