AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s ethics watchdog on Wednesday unanimously found House Speaker Sara Gideon’s use of a partially corporate-funded committee to reimburse herself for two 2016 political donations violated state law.
The Maine Ethics Commission voted unanimously to assess a $500 fine against Gideon’s shuttered political committee, ending a state ethics case against her as she runs for the Democratic nomination to face U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, in 2020. A federal complaint on the same issue looms and a conservative group filed a related one Tuesday.
William Lee, a Democratic attorney from Waterville who chairs the commission, said even if there was little intent to deceive the public, what ultimately mattered was whether the law was followed and that it was “important for the future” that the commission draw a line.
“It just says you can’t do this,” said Commissioner Richard Nass, a former Republican state senator from Acton of state election law, “and she did it.”
Gideon has drawn the most attention for reimbursed contributions to federal causes, but the commission focused on two $250 payments to the House Democratic Campaign Committee and now-U.S. Rep. Jared Golden’s state-level political committee in 2016 that were originally made under Gideon’s name but were reimbursed by the political committee.
Contributing in someone else’s name is illegal on the state and federal levels. The Gideon-led committee dissolved earlier this year, and Gideon wrote a $1,446 check covering those donations and “other expenses,” said Jonathan Wayne, the commission’s executive director.
Wayne recommended last week against an investigation into Gideon because it would be unlikely to find that Gideon knowingly violated campaign finance law, since the contributions at issue were disclosed in filings. The panel agreed not to investigate further on Wednesday, but the three voting members still voted unanimously to find Gideon violated state law.
Gideon spokesperson Maeve Coyle expressed support for the decision, saying the commission “continued its tradition of fairness” and supported Gideon attorney Ben Grant’s position that the violations were minor in terms of fundraising and did little harm to the public.
At the hearing, Lee disagreed with Grant’s assertion that the age of the violations did not matter. In a statement, Maine Republican Party Chair Demi Kouzounas said it was a “clear and blatant violation of the law.”
The complaint came from former state Sen. Ed Youngblood, R-Brewer, who worked with Senate Republicans’ campaign arm and the state party to file complaints to the state commission and the Federal Election Commission in August, alleging that Gideon violated laws against contributing in the name of another.
Still in limbo is the federal complaint concerning Gideon’s $2,750 in contributions to the federal arm of the Maine Democratic Party and former 2nd Congressional District candidate Emily Cain in 2015 and 2016 that were reimbursed by her state-level political committee.
Like the others, those reimbursements were disclosed in state filings, but they ran afoul of federal election law because Gideon’s committee took 60 percent of its money from business sources between 2014 and early 2019 that are allowed to contribute to state campaigns but not federal ones. It’s unclear when that complaint will be addressed.
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 after they were discovered by The Washington Free Beacon this summer.
Gideon is seen as the front-runner with national backing in the Democratic primary to face Collins, a fourth-term Republican. She outraised Collins over the summer in the race, but Collins has raised more money for 2020 than any politician in Maine history. Two other Democrats — lobbyist Betsy Sweet and lawyer Bre Kidman — are running active campaigns.
The ethics complaints have been a form of warfare so far in the race. News of Gideon’s contributions in August was followed by a liberal group’s Senate ethics complaint against Collins. A conservative group filed another federal complaint on Tuesday against the Maine Democratic Party and Cain’s campaign for not disposing of Gideon’s contributions.