November 17, 2019
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Groups behind 3 of 5 Maine ballot questions face campaign finance fines

BDN File | BDN
BDN File | BDN
Don Christen of Starks smokes marijuana outside the Somerset County Courthouse during the 26th annual Patriot's Day Rally smoke-in, which he organizes every year to educate and bring awareness to the benefits of marijuana.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The leniency of the Maine Ethics Commission will be tested when it considers more than a dozen requests for mercy from candidates and political organizations who missed campaign finance filing deadlines.

Among the offenders are legislative veterans, party committees and groups advocating for three of the five referendum questions on the November ballot. The commission will meet Aug. 31 to consider sanctions.

In one case, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which supports legalizing recreational marijuana through Question 1, the preliminary fine is more than $95,000, but commission staff recommends it be reduced to $2,500, which is still a large fine compared to most that are levied by the commission.

The pro-marijuana campaign, which is an offshoot of the national Marijuana Policy Project, argued that inexperience with Maine’s campaign finance laws caused it to report a $95,000 expenditure just before the June primary nearly eight weeks late. In the days immediately around an election, finance reports are due every 24 hours.

“If an organization as sophisticated as the Marijuana Policy Project negligently chose not to prospectively avail itself of competent legal advice regarding its reporting compliance requirements and chose an inexperienced staffer to file its reports, it should not be able to cite that staffer’s inexperience with Maine law as a reason to reduce the penalty for its filing mistake,” reads a staff recommendation for the fine in the commission’s Aug. 31 agenda.

It is common for the commission to assess fines lower than the maximums the law allows.

The Citizens Who Support Maine’s Public Schools PAC, an offshoot of the Maine Education Association, supports Question 2, which would create a 3 percent tax on income over $200,000 to benefit public schools. The ballot question committee’s request for leniency was similar to the pro-marijuana group: It blamed staff inexperience. The maximum fine for the violation — reporting a large in-kind contributions about six weeks late — is more than $6,700, but commission staff recommends $500.

The Fair Vote Ballot Question Committee, which was created by a national nonprofit organization called Fair Vote, supports the bid to institute ranked-choice voting in Maine, which is Question 5 on the November ballot. The committee missed reporting deadlines for a handful of expenditures totaling more than $33,000 and faces a maximum penalty of $10,000. But commission staff recommends $500. The committee argued that an internal miscommunication caused the error.

Some of the other late-filing cases on the Aug. 31 agenda are as follows:

— The Androscoggin County Republican Committee faces a fine of up to $500 for failure to report an expenditure on time. Commission staff recommends $150.

— The Friends of Maine Hospitals PAC faces an up to $1,680 fine for a late filing. Staff recommends $500.

— The Energy PAC for Maine failed to report a $5,000 contribution by the proper deadline and faces a fine of up to $4,200. Staff recommends $500.

— Several candidates running for the Legislature face fines of between $100 and $820, but staff has recommended reductions or waiving the fines altogether.

 



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