AUGUSTA, Maine — A political committee for Gov. Janet Mills was fined $2,000 by Maine ethics regulators on Wednesday after running 10 months over a deadline to pay tens of thousands of dollars in debt to the city of Augusta for her January inaugural activities.
The Democratic governor was the first to take the office under a campaign finance reform law approved by voters in 2015 establishing disclosure requirements for the transition teams that guide governors-elect to office, paying staff salaries and bills for the inauguration.
That law allows committees managing the transition and inauguration to raise money to cover costs only until the Jan. 31 after Election Day and barring them from taking money from lobbyists or their employers during the legislative session, which begins in early January.
The Mills committee, which held the inauguration and associated activities at the city-owned Augusta Civic Center, said the bill was $63,000 more than the $132,000 it expected, leading it to continue to raise money throughout the year before retiring the debt earlier this month.
A majority of the four-member panel seemed inclined to fine Mills’ committee at a September meeting. The maximum penalty is $10,000. Carey had initially recommended the committee be fined no more than $500 in a letter to the commission.
The commission unanimously settled on $2,000 at a Wednesday meeting after Carey argued the Mills committee operated in good faith and had no choice but to fundraise after the deadline. The strictness of the deadline, the committee’s efforts to be transparent and the higher-than-expected bill factored into the commission’s decision.
Commissioners were concerned about sending a message to future candidates, and noted that the committee had to incur more costs to pay staff the longer bills went unpaid. The committee told the ethics panel that it received a $2,200 bill this week from a union whose workers performed setup work at the inauguration that will be one of its final expenses.
“I don’t see harm to the public here,” said Commissioner Meri Lowry, a Democrat from Portland. “But I am stopped by the fact that there was an express deadline and it was blown through.”
Late donors to Mills’ inaugural committee were led by S. Donald Sussman, a Florida hedge fund manager, Democratic megadonor and the former husband of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District. He gave $43,000 of the $61,600 raised by Mills’ committee from mid-September to early December that was largely responsible for retiring the debt.
Carey argued there was no benefit to the inaugural committee to letting the debt drag on and that part of the issue may have stemmed from the committee being made up of primarily volunteers who did not have experience putting on large events. Lindsay Crete, a Mills spokeswoman, said the governor is “grateful that this issue is resolved.”
The fine will be paid out of the remaining $4,149.98 the committee has left. Remaining funds will be donated to a nonprofit that aids domestic violence survivors, according to Carey.