Moments before he stepped up to the lectern and pulled the plug on his bid for the Blaine House, John Richardson confided that he had a strange dream last week — and a psychologically loaded one at that:

He’s sitting on the bench at a basketball game, desperate to get into the action. The clock is ticking, the action is fierce and Richardson is convinced he can make a difference — if only he can get out there on the floor.

What, he wonders, is the coach waiting for?

Late in the game, the coach looks down the bench and, at long last, calls Richardson’s name.

“But then I realize I can’t go in,” Richardson said, “because I look down and see I’m not wearing any shoes.”

From the tears in his eyes to the quiver in his voice, it was clear Monday as Richardson withdrew from the race to become Maine’s next governor that his not-so-subtle nightmare was fast coming true.

With the Democratic primary just six weeks away, the candidate who just last week was touting his plan to save Maine’s ailing economy found himself packing up and leaving the arena — done in by the refusal of a handful of campaign workers to play by the rules as the deadline for Clean Election funding loomed.

“Two of them, 60 days ago, I’d never even met,” Richardson lamented moments after exiting the race. “You know what I think happened? They got toward the end — and toward the end is when they cut corners.”

Sad as it may have been for him and his supporters, the good news behind Richardson’s self-ejection from the gubernatorial contest is that Maine’s Clean Election system worked.

Thanks to the staff of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, we now know that at least four overzealous staffers and/or volunteers within Richardson’s campaign committed a startling string of technical fouls as they scrambled to qualify Richardson for as much as $1.8 million in Clean Election funding.

The bad news, at least for now, is that not even Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the commission, can say with any certainty how many of Richardson’s people broke how many rules in their misguided effort to keep their guy in the game.

That task now lays squarely at the feet of Attorney General Janet Mills, to whom Wayne formally referred his staff’s findings late Tuesday afternoon.

“At this point, I feel the (Attorney General’s Office) has enough information to make up its own mind as to whether or not to investigate,” Wayne said. “And there have been plenty of calls for them to do so.”

As well there should be.

This much we already know, based on Wayne’s 13-page letter to Richardson explaining why the commission last week nixed his request for Clean Election funding:

Four people in Richardson’s campaign, including at least one who was paid for “field work,” made a mockery of Maine’s Clean Election system as they traversed the state in search of 3,250 “qualifying contributions” to make Richardson eligible for public campaign funds.

Under the law, it’s a simple process: You, the donor, give the campaign worker a check or money order for $5 on behalf of the candidate. At the same time, you sign a “receipt and acknowledgement” form affirming that the five bucks came from your personal funds and that you received nothing of value in return.

Richardson’s rogues, however, had their own game plan.

According to the ethics commission’s staff, one paid campaign worker in Fort Kent attested that 28 signers made the $5 contributions — when in fact they didn’t.

Ditto for a worker in Perry. Of the 17 contributors contacted by the commission in that instance, eight said they hadn’t made the $5 contribution.

Then there was the resident of Topsham who told the commission that she signed the form for yet another circulator, but “did not give a qualifying contribution from her personal funds.”

Finally, there was the form that passed through a “company in southern Maine,” where one employee said he was told by “Richardson people” that the $5 money orders were on the company — all he had to do was sign the blank money order.

There’s more, including allegations of forged signatures that don’t even come close to what the commission found on corresponding voter registration cards. But you get the picture — despite Richardson’s insistence that he repeatedly implored his campaign workers to go by the book, some clearly didn’t.

All of which brings us to the $1.8 million question: Did these four people (and whoever else may have stepped out of bounds as they rushed to hit their clean election targets) act independently of one another? Or were they playing, shall we say, as the B team?

Wayne, with a limited staff and a gargantuan workload (don’t forget all those Clean Election candidates for the Legislature), conceded that he’s in no position at this point to say how big a scandal this actually is.

“Our job was to determine whether we could be confident that John Richardson’s campaign collected 3,250 qualifying contributions that were valid,” Wayne said. “And we found enough of a problem that we felt we could not make that determination.”

Which brings us to Attorney General Mills, who has no choice but to take the ball — or is it now a hot potato? — and run with it.

Kate Simmons, the attorney general’s spokeswoman, said Tuesday that Wayne’s letter of referral had arrived, but she declined to say much else.

Richardson, meanwhile, speculated bravely after Monday’s farewell that this may not be the end of his political career. Nothing in the commission’s findings, after all, implicates him in any of his campaign’s shenanigans.

“I’ll run for something else,” he said, putting on his best game face. “I hope I’ll have that chance (and) no one will hold this against me.”

Maybe he’s right. Maybe this sad chapter in Maine’s Clean Election history is what it is — and nothing more.

Or maybe, as they peel back the layers on the campaign he thought he knew, Richardson’s bad dream has only just begun.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]