AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s ethics regulator will review dueling ethics complaints from Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling and a political committee that formed to oppose him in a move that could lead to punishment for at least one group in the final week of the wide-open election.
The city of Portland has referred the two sets of complaints to the Maine Ethics Commission on Friday, said Paul Lavin, the commission’s assistant director. The four-member board is scheduled to meet Wednesday, and it could consider the matter before the Nov. 5 election. After receiving complaints, commissioners must vote to punish or investigate groups.
Strimling, the first-term mayor, is running for re-election against City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, former school board chair Kate Snyder and server Travis Curran in a high-dollar race that has largely revolved around leadership styles in the heavily Democratic city.
Strimling was elected in 2015 with wide support from the Portland business community, but he has clashed with City Manager Jon Jennings and many councilors during his tenure. He is now running as a movement progressive with the backing of dozens of labor groups.
Many business owners are now behind Thibodeau and Snyder. Unite Portland, a political committee largely funded by real estate developers, emerged in August to run advertisements against Strimling while advocating for no other candidate in particular.
The group’s principal officer is Dory Waxman, the founder of a nonprofit school that teaches commercial sewing to immigrants. Unite Portland raised nearly $19,000 by September’s end largely from real estate professionals. It has employed Republican political consultant Lance Dutson under a new company he formed in July, according to the Portland Press Herald.
Strimling filed two complaints with the city making several allegations against Unite Portland in October, including one noting that the group spent $15,000 on advertising in the mayoral race in September that was not disclosed until October.
After Labor Day in an election year, state law requires groups to disclose those types of expenditures above $250 within two days. That is the clearest violation of state campaign finance law in either filing that could be punished by a maximum penalty of more than $7,000.
Unite Portland responded with a mid-October complaint against Strimling’s campaign, alleging that Progressive Portland, a group that backs Strimling, was boosting his campaign without filing campaign finance reports. Strimling’s campaign asked the city to dismiss that complaint.
It submitted a sworn affidavit from Steven Biel, the Democratic operative who founded Progressive Portland, in which he says he was not compensated for his volunteer work on Strimling’s campaign. Volunteer work is not considered a political contribution under state law.
Lavin said it “remains to be seen” how far the commission will proceed with the two complaints by Wednesday’s meeting, where commissioners will also consider a staff recommendation to not investigate House Speaker Sara Gideon, one of three Democrats running active 2020 campaigns against U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, over political contributions reimbursed by her state-level political committee.