The staff of the state agency that enforces campaign finance laws is recommending a $1,500 fine against Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, for late reporting by his political action committee of contributions and expenditures.
The fine is significantly reduced from a possible $31,764 penalty prescribed in state statute, in part because Alfond reported the violations to the state and because the activity did not occur during an election year. The law allows the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices to recommend lower fines to account for impact on the public and elections.
One violation involves the late reporting of donations to the Maine Democratic Party, while the other involves late filings of smaller contributions to Alfond’s leadership PAC.
The fine will be decided by the five-member commission during its meeting next Thursday. The commission has the authority to accept the recommendation or increase the penalty. Alfond said in a written statement that he will not contest the fine even if the ethics panel approves a higher penalty than recommended by staff.
Regardless of whether the commission accepts the staff recommendation, the issue could be used against Alfond, the second-highest elected official in state government and who, in many instances, would replace the governor in the event of resignation, death or removal from office, according to the Maine Constitution.
Alfond is also a frequent critic of Republican Gov. Paul LePage and LePage’s business acumen as Maine’s chief executive officer. Conversely, the Senate president is a frequent target of LePage and the Maine Republican Party. Both the governor and Republican lawmakers have been critical of Alfond for his inherited wealth and his pointed attacks against LePage during his time as leader of the Senate and as Senate minority leader between 2011 and 2012, when Republicans controlled the State House.
In a prepared statement, Alfond said the violations were mistakes that should have been prevented.
“I take very seriously the responsibilities of ensuring transparency between money and politics,” Alfond said. “Because of this, I regret that inadequate record-keeping led to these errors. But as soon as I became aware of the errors, I called the board of ethics to report it and to fix it.”
David Sorensen, spokesman for the Maine Republican Party, said in a written statement that “this kind of mistake is bound to happen once in a while whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, and I’m sure Senator Alfond is taking the necessary steps to rectify the situation.”
TIMING AFFECTS THE SIZE OF FINES
Self-reporting violations can help mitigate fines. Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the ethics commission, said Alfond’s voluntary report was a consideration in reducing the penalty.
However, he said, more important was that the late reports did not occur during the heat of an election, and that two donations to the Maine Democratic Party were ultimately disclosed by the Maine Democratic Party PAC.
In the past, the commission has levied substantial fines against PACs that reported late expenditures or contributions closer to Election Day. The commission justified the larger fines because PACs sometimes absorb penalties to conceal activity for strategic purposes.
The Alfond Business, Community & Democracy PAC is facing the fine for violations that occurred in 2013. According to a letter to the commission from Kate Knox, an attorney representing the Maine Democratic Party and Alfond’s PAC, the Senate president reported the violations after realizing earlier this month that the PAC’s fund balance seemed too high.
On July 18, the PAC met with ethics commission staff to discuss the discrepancies. It was determined that two donations totaling $24,500 to the Maine Democratic Party in the summer of 2013 were left off the PAC quarterly finance reports. Both had been reported by the party PAC in its state disclosure filings.
A second violation was the omission of smaller contributions. The law requires that PACs report donations upon receipt. Wayne, director of the ethics commission, said Alfond reported the contributions as occurring on the dates written on the checks instead.
According to records with the ethics commission, Alfond was the primary decision-maker of the PAC during the time the violations occurred.
He has since installed Charles Louis Simms as treasurer, which he said was designed to improve “internal record-keeping and auditing processes to ensure that these mistakes won’t happen again.”
Alfond’s PAC is what is known as a leadership PAC. Leadership PACs are often used by legislative leaders, or those aspiring to that position, to help elect fellow partisans.
DISPLEASED WITH NON-COMPLIANCE
Alfond’s PAC has spent over $36,000 so far this year, with most of it going to the Democratic Party.
The Portland Democrat contributed a significant amount to PACs and groups that assisted in Democrats’ efforts to retake the Legislature in 2012.
“I support a robust system that holds us all accountable,” Alfond said. “Maine people expect to know where money is coming from and how it is spent. I believe deeply in these principles, and I’m most bothered by the fact that I, even though it was inadvertent, was in non-compliance. This is a system that works. I will pay the fine as determined by the commission and will take every step to ensure that my PAC remains compliant going forward.”
Small fines for reporting violations are not unusual, especially leading up to statewide elections.
Earlier this week the LePage campaign was hit with a preliminary fine of $5,000 by the ethics commission for failing to immediately file what is known as a 24-hour report for a pair of $1,500 donations.
During the 24-hour reporting period before primary and general elections, campaigns must disclose contributions exceeding $1,000 within 24 hours.
The LePage campaign said the error was self-reported and it was seeking a waiver of the fine.
The LePage campaign also was fined last month by the ethics commission for missing two deadlines to file 24-hour reports. The violations were for contributions totaling $5,850 from five donors.
The commission also will review a violation by the campaign committee for Democratic congressman and gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud.
The ethics staff discovered that the campaign had accepted donations from three businesses with the same majority owner, a violation of state law.
The law allows a maximum fine equal to the amount of the illegal contribution, in this case $6,000. However, the ethics staff is not recommending a fine against the Michaud campaign because the campaign returned the money immediately and because the error appeared to be a result of inadequate contributor screening.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: