AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Ethics Commission could kickstart an investigation this week into the alleged illegal use of state property for political purposes by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, following a complaint filed Tuesday by the Maine Democratic Party
Republicans fired back three hours later, responding to a BDN request for reaction to the Democrats’ complaint by saying they had filed one of their own.
The Maine Democratic Party filed its complaint Tuesday and, because the election is so soon, Maine statute requires ethics commissioners to meet within two business days unless both the party and LePage agree to postpone that meeting, according to Paul Lavin, assistant director for the commission.
The Democrats alleged that LePage’s misuse of public funds was not an isolated incident.
“Gov. LePage is clearly campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime,” said Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, in a prepared statement. “He’s blurred the line between engaging in the official business of our state and his own re-election efforts. Maine taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for his re-election or stand for a governor that is willing to break the rules for his own gain.”
According to the Democrats’ complaint, LePage broke Maine law by allowing his campaign spokesman, Alex Willette, to ride in state-owned vehicles with the governor to various official and political events. Maine law prohibits state employees from “misusing” state-owned vehicles, and the Democrats say the use of the black, state-leased SUV to transport campaign staff should be considered misuse, or “at the very least” should be reported as campaign contributions.
Republican Party spokesman David Sorensen said Tuesday that the SUV, which is driven by the Executive Protection Unit of the state police to transport the governor, is necessary for security purposes when LePage travels.
“It’s no expenditure on the state’s part for Alex to ride around in it,” he said. On Twitter, Sorensen dismissed the complaint as “catnip” for the Maine media.
However, within three hours of being asked by the BDN for a response to the Democrats’ charges, Sorensen issued an email saying the GOP had filed an ethics complaint against Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike Michaud.
The Democrats also claim LePage used his official State House phone number as the contact line for his re-election campaign, and that he used state resources to send material attacking his Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, as part of a concerted campaign effort.
The complaint states that governor’s office staff prepared and sent the email using state computers and servers on state time and — more importantly — that the email in question was
“a thinly veiled campaign missive issued from the state and highly inappropriate use of resources.”
The Democrats included with their complaint three videos of Willette entering or leaving the SUV used to transport the governor, as well as copies of an email sent by the Office of the Governor attacking Michaud on energy policy, which included statements such as “Congressman Michaud has chosen to stand with out-of-state liberal politicians and activists …”
That email was not the first communique from LePage’s state office to lash out at Michaud. When questioned about those messages by the BDN in the past, several LePage staffers have said that correspondence critical of Michaud for votes that affect Maine are statements on policy, not politics, and are entirely appropriate from the governor’s official state office.
In its complaint, Democratic Party Executive Director Mary Erin Casale wrote that “the wording of the email referenced above can have no other purpose than to advocate for the defeat of Congressman Michaud.”
Misuse of state property for political purposes is a Class C crime. The five members of the Ethics Commission have the option to launch an investigation based on the complaint, or throw it out.
The Democrats’ complaint is not the first allegation of misuse of public property against the governor. Though he never filed a formal complaint, independent candidate Eliot Cutler said last year that a 26-page booklet published by LePage’s state office to describe the governor’s accomplishments amounted to campaign material, and was an improper use of state resources.
In a written statement, LePage’s campaign manager, Scott Van Orman, did not address the specific concerns raised by the Democrats, but called the complaint a “purely political attempt to create a bad headline the day before the first debate,” which is scheduled for Wednesday morning in Portland.
“Unfortunately, instead of focusing on the issues that matter in this election, Michaud’s mouthpiece the Maine Democratic Party is more interested in making false claims, and forcing the Maine Ethics Commission to waste taxpayer resources in their busiest time of the year,” wrote Van Orman.
In its retaliatory complaint, the Republican Party is alleging that a $500 donation made by Michaud’s congressional campaign committee to the AFL-CIO in November 2013 constituted sponsorship of an event at which Michaud made a gubernatorial campaign speech in late October 2013. If true, state law requires that Michaud report the $500 as a gubernatorial campaign expenditure.
The Republicans’ complaint also detailed a series of campaign contributions made to Michaud’s federal campaign committee in 2013 after he announced he would not seek re-election to Congress. That issue was addressed by the Federal Election Commission, which ordered Michaud to return the funds in December 2013.
BDN State House bureau chief Christopher Cousins contributed to this report. Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.