Last May, I received a paid direct mail advertisement on my doorstep urging me to vote for state Rep. Ben Chipman in the Democratic Maine Senate primary.

At first, it looked like a political advertisement like any other, with a nice picture of the candidate, a list of his endorsements, etc.

But two things made this advertisement different.

First, it didn’t have the usual “paid for by” disclaimer that you usually see on political mailings. Second, one side of the mailer mentioned the time and location of two events where voters could meet the candidate face to face.

After a few phone calls to the Maine Ethics Commission, I discovered something surprising to me as a voter but apparently well known to Maine’s political class.

Because this mailing mentioned a “meet the candidate” house party, it was exempt from most campaign finance regulations and reporting requirements.

You see, buried deep in the Maine Clean Election Act is a provision known as the “house party loophole.”

Under this exception, the host of a house party can spend up to $250 on food, beverages, invitations and the like without having to report their spending – and, importantly, without having their expenditures count toward the spending limit of the candidate they’re backing.

The idea, as it was explained to me, was to make sure that a volunteer can invite friends and neighbors over to meet a candidate and not have to deal with complicated campaign finance reporting.

However, because the law neither limits the number of people who can “host” any given party nor defines what it means to be a “host,” Chipman interpreted it as allowing him to collect an unlimited number of undisclosed $250 checks to pay for direct mail advertising without counting the spending against the expenditure limit he agreed to in exchange for taxpayer financing of his campaign.

As long as his advertisement made some mention of a house party, Chipman argued, he could privately raise as much money as he wanted and still run “clean.”

And after several weeks of debate and a narrow 3-2 vote last June, the Ethics Commission decided that the law was sufficiently vague to allow Chipman’s fundraising.

Why does all this matter? It’s not like one paid mailer determined the outcome of the election, after all.

It matters because it goes to the heart of why we have a Clean Election law in the first place. Maine voters didn’t pass Clean Elections because we like giving taxpayer handouts to politicians. We did it in exchange for a promise by those candidates not to take big checks from large donors and lobbyists.

And because I as a private citizen filed a complaint, we know that at least one of those donors was in fact a registered lobbyist with active business before the Legislature. Did the lobbyist write that check in return for a favor? I have no evidence of that. Perhaps he was just supporting the candidate he thought would do the best job and it had nothing to do with his client’s interests.

But the whole reason we have public financing is to prevent even the appearance of that kind of corruption. And we require traditionally funded candidates to disclose their donations so that voters have the ability to decide for themselves what they think of a candidate’s donors.

In fairness, Chipman says that he was not the first or only politician to exploit the house party loophole in this way. Perhaps that’s true, but thanks to the swift action of the Maine Ethics Commission, he should be the last.

In response to the complaint I filed in June, the Ethics Commission unanimously passed an emergency rule Aug. 31 that closes the house party loophole. The rule states simply that to qualify to be the host of a house party for a candidate, the party has to actually be on your property.

No more phony hosts writing secret checks. No more parties with dozens of hosts pitching in $250 each to pay for campaign advertising that would otherwise be illegal.

Because of the Ethics Commission’s leadership and swift action, we can once again have confidence that Clean Election candidates are actually running clean. And that’s something we should all applaud.