Maine People Before Politics, the nonprofit advocacy group born out of former Gov. Paul LePage’s 2010 inaugural committee, was notably absent from Augusta’s public policy fights in recent years, after serving as a champion of the governor’s agenda from its inception in 2011 through 2015.
Around 2016, the group stopped running ads, rarely updated its website and social media accounts, and all but abandoned fundraising. But while the group slowly wound down at that time, it still paid a total of nearly $100,000 to the governor’s daughter and top political adviser in 2016 and 2017.
The group also failed to properly disclose its activities to the IRS and the public by not submitting required information on its 990 tax forms, according to a former director of the agency’s division responsible for nonprofit groups, who said the group’s failure to disclose its activities was “weird in the sense that it’s not the way a well-run or even a poorly run tax-exempt organization operates.”
Maine People Before Politics was recently relaunched by LePage allies to argue for conservative policies in the new era of Democratic control in Augusta.
In the last few months, the group hired two ex-LePage administration officials, helped organize a rally against a proposed carbon tax, published a critical analysis of Gov. Janet Mills’ proposed budget, activated its dormant Twitter account, redesigned its website and logo and named LePage its honorary chairman.
“It’s a reboot and a reorganization in this incarnation,” said Julie Rabinowitz, Maine People Before Politics’ director of policy and communication and former LePage press secretary. Rabinowitz joined the organization in January.
“The group was in sleep-mode the past couple of years,” Rabinowitz wrote in an email. But “there still have been expenses related to keeping the lights on, software fees, website up, etc.”
Those expenses included paying Lauren LePage more than $30,000 for a total of 12 1/2 months of work as executive director over the course of fiscal years 2016 and 2017, a job she held while attending the University of Maine School of Law. Tax filings say she worked 40 hours a week.
During that same period, the group paid $65,000 to the firm run by the former governor’s longtime political strategist, Brent Littlefield, who is now a media adviser for the group.
Maine People Before Politics’ payments to LePage and Littlefield represent 60 percent of the group’s total expenses in 2016 and 2017, according to tax filings.
Since its inception, the group has told the IRS its mission was “to ensure the people of Maine are informed about their government’s priorities.”
But from 2016 to 2018, the group appears to have declined to use many of the tools at its disposal to inform the public. While Lauren LePage did make a radio appearance in 2016 and wrote newsletters sent to the group’s email list, the group’s homepage, including its “latest news” section, repeatedly went months without an update in 2016 and 2017, and seemingly was not updated at all in 2018, according to a BDN analysis of the site’s history.
The group also didn’t run ads or robocalls, as it had in previous years. Its Twitter account was silent, and it averaged about two posts a month on Facebook during 2016 and 2017, many of which were notices about the then-governor’s town hall events.
When asked what the group was doing in 2016 and 2017, Rabinowitz said the “MPBP worked on policies to support economic growth in Maine,” and provided the Bangor Daily News with copies of newsletters signed by Lauren LePage that the group sent to supporters in those years, as well as a screenshot of a link to a radio interview LePage gave as executive director of the group in January 2016. Rabinowitz also provided a link to a January 2016 BDN story about a pro-LePage rally at the State House that Rabinowitz said was organized by the group.
But the Maine People Before Politics’ social media accounts and website did not mention the rally at the time, according to a review of the group’s Facebook page, Twitter account and archived versions of the group’s home page.
The younger LePage, who did not respond to four requests for comment, left the organization in June 2017 after graduating from the University of Maine School of Law, at which time the group seems to have gone completely dormant. She then took a job with an Augusta lobbying firm and managed Shawn Moody’s failed gubernatorial bid before eventually becoming a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association in December 2018.
Rabinowitz said that LePage took a leave of absence from the group in the second half of 2016, during which time she worked on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. LePage also served as the “nominal” executive director of the group in 2015, Rabinowitz said, although she was not paid by the group that year and was not listed on the group’s 2015 filings.
When asked what consulting services Littlefield provided in exchange for the $65,000 the group paid to his firm in 2016 and 2017, Littlefield declined to answer and accused the BDN of anti-conservative bias for looking at the group’s finances.
“When you decide you’re going to do exactly the same thing with the vast majority of other groups that have spent millions of dollars on issue and policy activity… then maybe there’ll be a little more discussion back and forth,” Littlefield said.
Rabinowitz said that Littlefield was paid for “consulting and other services, for example, media buys, message delivery and creative services.” But after the BDN asked for examples of media buys made in 2016 and 2017, she said she had reviewed the group’s invoices for those years and determined there were in fact no media buys made during that time.
Littlefield has served as a political consultant to a variety of conservative Maine politicians, including the elder LePage, former gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody and former Rep. Bruce Poliquin.
In the 2018 election cycle, the Poliquin campaign paid Littlefield Consulting $96,000 in campaign consulting fees, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars for ad buys, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
After 2015, Maine People Before Politics stopped raising money from donors, according to tax filings. After raising $1.1 million between the end of 2010 and late 2015, including $204,595 in fiscal year 2015, it raised slightly more than $1,000 worth of donations in 2016. In 2017, that total fell to just $157. In 2018, the group filed an “e-postcard” tax filing that did not provide information on donations.
As a 501(c)4 charitable organization under federal law, Maine People Before Politics isn’t allowed to expressly campaign for candidates, but it can engage in issue advocacy and raise unlimited amounts of money.
This type of organization “must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare,” according to the IRS, and must not benefit “any private shareholder or individual.”
Nonprofits like Maine People Before Politics also aren’t required to name their donors. Because of this, politically minded nonprofits are often referred to as “dark money” groups because they allow donors to anonymously spend money to influence policy and public perception.
For example, the liberal Maine People’s Alliance is also a “dark money” nonprofit that doesn’t disclose its donors, although it uses political committees, which report donors to the state, to spend directly on campaigns.
However, unlike Maine People Before Politics, the Maine People’s Alliance disclosed detailed information about its activities. For example, in the group’s 2017 filing, it breaks down the money it spent on “Statewide & Local Community Organizing,” “Door Canvass,” “Telephone Canvass,” and “Progressive Coalition Services,” as well as what those activities entailed, and the specific policy issues involved. The group had $1.3 million in expenses in 2017, and paid its executive director Jesse Graham $23,690 for eight hours a week of work, according to the filing.
Maine People Before Politics has never properly disclosed its activities, according to Marcus Owens, a former head of the IRS’ tax exempt division.
The group has never filed a 990 tax form with a completed Part III, which requires nonprofits to “describe the organization’s program service accomplishments.” The IRS requires that nonprofits submit 990s to ensure compliance with the tax code, but also so organizations “share information with the public about their programs,” according to the IRS website.
Because of this repeated omission, the group has filed “wildly incomplete” tax forms, Owens said after reviewing seven years of the group’s tax filings for the BDN.
Because that section has never been filled out, the group’s tax forms “don’t tell anything about what they do and spend their money on,” Owens said. “You can’t tell anything about the organization, other than they seem to be slowly spending down what they made in the previous years.”
In response to questions about her organization’s filings, Rabinowitz said Maine People Before Politics will file amended forms with the missing information and disclose more about the group’s activities in future tax forms. Rabinowitz also noted that the IRS had never contacted the group about failing to file complete forms.
In 2015, the group ran robocalls featuring the voice of Lauren LePage accusing Senate Republicans of working against her father’s budget proposal. That year, the group also paid $18,500 to Littlefield Consulting in management fees, Rabinowitz said.
Before 2015, the group ran television and radio ads supporting the governor’s policies, issued press releases, and published reports on perceived bias in Maine media. Jason Savage, currently the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, served as the group’s first executive director.
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.