A group that advocates against excessive special-interest spending in Maine politics has released a study showing that local legislators have raised more than $12 million from “heavy hitter” donors over the past 10 years.

Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, the organization that in 1996 successfully advanced a referendum that established the Maine Clean Elections Act, said Thursday that Maine legislators are using so-called leadership political action committees to circumvent caps on donations to the campaigns of both privately and publicly financed candidates.

Unlike individual contributions to legislative candidates, there is no cap on what can be donated to the leadership PACs. Candidates using these PACs can then donate money from them to other legislative candidates or causes.

This helps these lawmakers gain clout when seeking leadership positions, or to help their party gain legislative seats. In return for the contributions, donors may gain influence over issues dealt with by the Legislature, critics contend.

Andrew Bossie, the group’s executive director, said Thursday the report was not designed to vilify the lawmakers, interest groups or individuals involved with the PACs.

“These activities are perfectly legal,” he said. “What we’re trying to show is there are problems with the law, and that we should do more to reduce monied influence in our elections and policymaking.”

One hundred fifty two donors contributed 73 percent of all the money raised by the leadership PACs, according to the 17-page study.

The largest overall contributor was the Republican State Leadership Committee, which spent $796,386. The largest individual contributor was financier Donald Sussman, whose contributions totaled $379,000. Sussman donated more than all the other individual donors on the “heavy hitters” list combined.

Sussman, a contributor to Democratic and charitable causes and the majority share owner of MaineToday Media, owns The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and other media outlets in Maine.

Robert C. Monks, a minority owner and director of MaineToday Media and contributor to Republican candidates, was fourth on the individual donor list, with contributions of $35,000.

Other contributors of large amounts of money to the PACs represented various industries.

Industry groups contributing the most money were law firms, health care providers, banking and finance institutions, and pharmaceutical companies. Each contributed about $500,000 or more over the 10-year period — law firm Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer and Nelson contributed $102,715, and health care provider Anthem/Wellpoint contributed $108,115.

Industries contributing about $400,000 include telecom and utility companies, manufacturing companies, labor unions and energy companies. Of these, the Maine State Employees Association contributed $121,050.

Sussman is also a “large contributor” to Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, according to Bossie.

Others in the “heavy hitter” report who donated to the organization are Rep. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and Cyrus Hagge, owner of a Portland property management company.

Asked how he reconciled supporting the clean election group’s mission with his significant PAC contributions, Sussman said in a written statement that until the day arrives “when we successfully abolish the PACs, the unlimited donations, the secret sources, and the rest of the campaign finance loopholes, I’m going to do everything I can to level the playing field so the voices of all Maine people can be heard.”

He added, “The Maine clean elections system takes us in the right direction and I’m proud to support an organization like MCCE who is fighting to protect it.”

Bossie said that although legislative campaigns are mostly funded with small donations, leadership PACs allow interest groups to influence Maine elections and policymaking.

He said the report shows how legislators are using PACs to raise and spend money outside of their individual campaigns. Several of the PACs are run by legislative leaders who also ran as Maine Clean Election Act candidates and received public funding for their campaigns while contributing large amounts to other candidates.

The Portland Press Herald recently reported that from January to March of this year, 11 legislators who ran or are currently running as Clean Election candidates raised a combined $21,860 from lobbyists, corporations and individual supporters, according to disclosures filed April 20 with the state ethics commission.

The Citizens for Clean Elections report noted that legislative leaders who spurned private money for their own campaigns while raising tens of thousands of dollars through PAC fundraising have led to “charges of hypocrisy.”

Legislation designed to address leadership PACs has been introduced and rejected during the past three legislative sessions, as party leaders argue that the PACs are necessary to support candidates and party causes.

House Minority Leader Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, who runs a leadership PAC, told the Press Herald that leadership PACs don’t buy influence.

“What’s important to me is transparency and accountability, so people can see who is contributing to leadership PACs like my own and where that money is going,” she said.

The clean elections report shows that privately funded candidates are also using the leadership PACs in addition to running individual campaigns. Privately funded legislative candidates may accept up to $350 from a single donor in an election. The report shows that the 18 Democratic and 12 Republican lawmakers ran leadership or caucus PACs.

The report concluded that the PACs could further a “pay to play” atmosphere in state policymaking, or that contributions could buy influence.

Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, rejected that argument. He said Maine is a “retail politics” state where voter contact trumps campaign donations.

“If money makes the difference, then the current resident of the Blaine House would not have even been the Republican nominee,” said Cushing, referring to Gov. Paul LePage, who was outspent during the 2010 gubernatorial race.

Cushing, who in 2010 ran as a privately financed candidate and operated a leadership PAC, said that if donations bought influence, then some of this donors were going to be unhappy with his vote last month to sustain LePage’s veto on a research and development bond proposal. Cushing had originally voted for the bond.

Bossie, meanwhile, said his group would continue to shed light on money in politics in the hope that the Legislature — or voters — would pass needed reforms to laws governing PACS, and to the clean elections law, which he said was weakened by the 125th Legislature.

Changes to the law were advanced by the Republican majority, which argued that the law wasted taxpayer money while increasing spending by outside groups.

State House Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: stevemistler