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AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Republican Party filed a Tuesday complaint with the Maine Ethics Commission alleging campaign finance violations by House Speaker Sara Gideon in the past state election cycle as the Democrat runs against U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in 2020.
The issue revolves around Facebook ads paid for Gideon’s now-shuttered state political action committee in 2018. The ads, on a Facebook page named “Speaker Sara Gideon” laud House Democrats for their work in Augusta and encourage viewers to sign up for Gideon’s email list.
The central question of the complaint centers on the timing of the reports and whether the ethics board sees ads paid for by Gideon’s leadership PAC as advocating for the House speaker’s re-election in a safe district. Republicans allege Gideon’s committee failed to report the ad spending in its quarterly campaign finance reports submitted to the Maine Ethics Commission.
The PAC’s report for the third quarter of 2018 and its pre-general election report, which together cover the timeframe when most of the ads ran, according to Facebook, do not list spending on the social media site that matches the ads in question.
The committee’s July 2019 quarterly report, the last one it filed before shutting down, includes a line of spending of $3,272.80 for “commission staff adjustment.” The GOP complaint notes that the amount is similar to the $3,373 the leadership PAC spent on Facebook, as reported by the social media site.
The complaint also alleges that the Facebook ads constitute an in-kind contribution from Gideon’s leadership PAC to her House reelection campaign, which would have exceeded contribution limits of $400 per election cycle.
Gideon’s committee was fined $500 last fall over contributions that it had reimbursed Gideon for, though the Maine Ethics Commission found that there was no intent to deceive the public. Gideon’s campaign said she received incorrect guidance.
PACs are allowed to spend an unlimited amount to support candidates running for office. But if that spending is coordinated with a candidate, it is considered a contribution to that candidate’s campaign under Maine election law.
In the case of the allegation against Gideon, the Speaker was the principal for the PAC, which makes the case for coordination. The Maine Ethics Commission will likely have to decide whether the Facebook advertisements constituted “support” for Gideon’s reelection campaign, as Maine Republicans allege. The four-minute video included among the ads showcases Gideon speaking positively of many of her Democratic colleagues in the House.
Gideon’s PAC reported $3,000 in Facebook spending to support four other House candidates in October 2018. That spending was classified as independent expenditures, according to a campaign finance report, meaning it was not subject to any contribution limits. The ads appeared on the Facebook page “Maine Votes” and directly advocated for voters to support candidates on Election Day.
Gideon of Freeport comfortably won re-election in her heavily Democratic district with 73.5 percent of the vote in 2018. She has made campaign finance reform a central part of her Senate bid. Her campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.