AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s campaign finance watchdog dismissed a complaint against House Speaker Sara Gideon on Wednesday in what is likely to be the last in a volley of similar charges resolved before the Nov. 3 election between the Democrat and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
Campaign finance complaints from partisan groups have been a form of warfare throughout the nationally targeted Maine U.S. Senate race that is by far the most expensive in state history, with some used as attack ad fodder while others have landed quietly. One drew punishment, with a Gideon-linked group paying a $500 state fine in 2019.
A handful of other complaints have targeted outside groups in addition to a new Democratic complaint against Collins last week, but they are likely minor violations at worst and rulings will likely take years due to backlogs and the lack of a quorum at the Federal Election Commission.
The state hearing Wednesday dealt with a complaint from Republicans against Gideon’s former Maine political committee over 2018 Facebook ads, though Maine Republican Party chair Demi Kouzounas, who filed the complaint, tried to link them to the competitive U.S. Senate race between Collins and Gideon that also includes independents Max Linn and Lisa Savage.
The five-member commission voted unanimously, however, to throw out the complaint, finding the ads were accounted for and did not violate state laws, though it asked its staff to review a policy that has long allowed the political committee and others like it to shut down despite minor accounting discrepancies — such as leftover balances of more than $250.
The Maine GOP claimed after the hearing the commission would review the Gideon group’s bank records. That is false. Jonathan Wayne, the commission’s executive director, said it was “not requesting bank records” from the group in the short term, but reviewing a general and rather technical policy of allowing political action committees to end with unexplained balances.
Republicans have long hit Gideon for the issue at the heart of the 2019 fine, which came because of political contributions that were illegally reimbursed through her political committee. The incident has been featured in several anti-Gideon ads from outside groups since then.
A complaint from the Maine Democratic Party this month alleges a violation by Collins’ campaign, saying it did not file a report disclosing contributions bundled by a political committee. Those groups are allowed to “bundle” — or gather — contributions and send them to candidates, but candidates must file an extra form if contributions exceed $18,700 in a reporting period.
The complaint alleges that Collins’ campaign received $18,800 in contributions bundled by the National Association of Broadcasters PAC, just going over the limit. Transfers to Collins’ campaign totaling that amount match contributions reported by the campaign as individual but not bundled contributions.
In a statement, Collins spokesperson Annie Clark denied that the contributions needed to be reported as bundled, saying “even if they were, this is a minor paperwork requirement — and all the individual contributions were fully reported in a timely manner.”
She added that the issue differed from Gideon’s 2019 violation, while the Maine Democratic Party contested the assertion that the contributions did not qualify as bundled, noting that other lawmakers filed paperwork for contributions they received through the PAC.
A ruling is all but impossible before the election and may not occur for years. While the Maine Ethics Commission recently regained enough commissioners for a quorum, the Federal Election Commission does not have enough commissioners to vote on any complaints. It had one briefly in May and June after nine months without one, but another commissioner resigned in June.
That has not stopped groups from filing complaints, however. A Republican-leaning group filed a complaint earlier this month alleging that Gideon’s campaign illegally coordinated with a Super-PAC citing tweets from a spokesperson that it argued were directives. A liberal group filed a complaint later that same day arguing that a Super-PAC supporting Collins had illegally coordinated with the senator’s campaign by using too much of the campaign’s footage.
Those complaints follow allegations earlier this year against the 1820 PAC, a single-candidate super PAC supporting Collins, claiming a $150,000 straw donation was illegally funneled through a Hawaii-based LLC.