AUGUSTA, Maine — A state ethics panel fined an outgoing legislator’s campaign $500 on Wednesday but cleared her of more serious allegations around an email list she used to raise a massive sum for a failed Maine Senate primary.
The hearing before the Maine Ethics Commission centered on the value of an email list with more than 140,000 names Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, used to raise $89,000 as of late May, which is perhaps the largest haul ever in a Maine legislative primary.
The issue reflects the intricacies of what Commissioner Richard Nass called a “gigantic” campaign against Rep. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, who beat Russell in a hotly contested and controversial June primary.
On Wednesday before the ethics panel, Russell faced June complaints from Michael Hiltz, a former Green activist who intersected with Chipman’s time in that party, challenging her on two main points: her email list and her political action committee.
The fine came after confusion over if the email list constituted an unreported contribution to Russell’s campaign. The commission unanimously said it did, also accepting her estimate that it was worth $1,500.
After that decision, Russell called the use of email lists to get scores of small-dollar donations to campaigns “a new area” for Maine election law, saying she originally had “no idea” she should report it and the commission’s decision was “totally fair.”
Russell said in commission documents that the list began in 2011, when she began to mobilize national progressive behind certain issues. But it later morphed into two lists, and Russell said she raised more than 90 percent of her 2016 campaign funds with the finished product.
In 2013, Russell said she shared a copy of the list with the Working Families PAC, a leadership PAC she runs. By the next year, the list had grown to 97,000 names, and it was sold to a progressive group in 2016 for just over $7,400.
However, Russell said that list wasn’t used for her campaign. In 2014, she uploaded the original list to a new hosting service and kept building it. After Russell decided to run for the Senate in May 2015, she shared it with her campaign. By 2016, it had nearly 144,000 names.
The other complaint revolved around Russell’s PAC, which was the subject of a Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting story in March that found it paid her more than nearly $8,000 since 2013 while only contributing $1,550 to Democratic candidates or organizations.
Hiltz cited that story in the complaint, calling the PAC an “unregulated money mill” for Russell, but commission staff said it was legal, and commissioners agreed Wednesday.
Russell may have faced electoral consequences for that spending: Nass said her loss may have proved that Portland voters “read and pay attention” to the news, and her campaign with Chipman was full of ethical volleys.
Last year, Russell’s PAC was fined $2,000 for late reporting. A Russell supporter filed a complaint against Chipman during the campaign that illuminated a loophole in election law that allowed Chipman volunteers to bundle unreported $250 contributions to pay for advertising. The commission will hold a hearing on a proposed rule change to clarify that law in August.
The commission also fined former Biddeford Mayor Joanne Twomey a total $300 for two violations — a payment to a staffer that violated the Maine Clean Election Act and a late financial report — from her failed Democratic primary run against state Sen. Susan Deschambault.