AUGUSTA, Maine — The staff of Maine’s election ethics commission is recommending against investigating Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon for her past use of a partially corporate-funded committee to reimburse herself for political contributions, saying the Democrat running to replace Sen. Susan Collins did not violate state law because she did not intend to conceal the true source of the contributions.
Gideon’s use of her state political committee, which has since dissolved, to reimburse herself for political contributions came to light over the summer and became the subject of a state campaign finance complaint from a former Republican state senator in late August.
In a memo to members of the Maine Ethics Commission released late Wednesday, the commission’s executive director wrote, “If the preliminary facts suggest little likelihood of a campaign finance violation, the Commission staff typically recommends against an investigation.”
The five-member commission will meet Wednesday, Oct. 30, to decide whether to launch an investigation into the complaint against the House speaker who has national Democratic backing in her bid to challenge Collins.
Former state Sen. Ed Youngblood, R-Brewer, submitted a complaint to the commission in August saying Gideon used a state political committee funded partially by corporations to reimburse herself for political donations in 2015 and 2016. He also asked the commission to consider whether her conduct violated the state’s Legislative Code of Ethics.
Gideon’s campaign said the state political committee she ran received “incorrect guidance” on how to process the donations and that the candidate later sent a check to the U.S. Treasury in an amount covering the total cost of the contributions to correct the violations of federal campaign finance law.
Maine Ethics Commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne wrote in the Wednesday memo that it is “difficult for the Commission staff to see how an investigation would” determine that the Gideon Leadership PAC broke election laws that prohibit “ contributions in the name of another.”
The practice is illegal on the state and federal levels. However, Wayne noted, in order for Gideon to have violated of the state law, she would have needed to intend to conceal the true source of the contributions — which, ultimately, was her state political committee.
“This case is different because the Gideon Leadership PAC clearly intended to report the contributions in its own name in campaign finance reports filed with this Commission,” Wayne wrote.
Youngblood has also filed a complaint against Gideon with the Federal Election Commission.
In 2015, Gideon contributed $1,000 to Emily Cain, who was the Democratic candidate running for the seat to represent Maine’s 2nd District in Congress. Nearly a month later, Gideon’s leadership PAC paid Gideon $1,000, calling it a “reimbursement for federal contribution.”
The PAC reimbursed Gideon three more times through 2016 for $1,750 more in contributions to Cain and the federal campaign arm of the Maine Democratic Party.
Her contributions were first reported by The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet. Election law experts said the contributions — which totaled at least $2,750 — were a clear-cut violation.
Wayne said in his memo that the commission believes the state law prohibiting contributions in others’ names is intended to apply to “situations where it is demonstrated that a contributor intends to remain concealed by contributing through an intermediary or conduit.”
In Gideon’s case, he said it was clear the Gideon Leadership PAC clearly intended to report the contributions in its own name by reimbursing Gideon directly.
Wayne went on to say Gideon’s committee should have been more detailed in reporting three of its federal contributions.
He also said Gideon should have informed two Maine-based PACs that received donations — the House Democratic Campaign Committee and the Golden Leadership Funds — that she was using leadership PAC funds to donate and not her personal funds.
Wayne said said the ethics commission does not have the authority to investigate legislative ethics codes, which can only be taken up by the Legislature.