Funny thing about partisan grenades tossed across the Great Political Divide in the eleventh hour of election season: Sometimes they blow up in your face.

Such was the case last week for two Democrats in the Maine Senate – Sen. Justin Alfond, the Senate minority leader from Portland, and Sen. John Patrick of Rumford.

It all began dramatically enough.

On Monday, Alfond and Patrick called a news conference to allege that two of their Republican colleagues – Sen. Andre Cushing of Hampden and Sen. Ron Collins of Wells – essentially had ripped off Maine taxpayers by double-dipping on reimbursements for legislative expenses.

Specifically, they cited the fact that Cushing paid for $3,100 in travel expenses with money from Respect Maine, his political action committee, only to personally ask for and receive the same amount in reimbursement from the Legislature’s expense fund.

Collins, they also announced, prepaid $2,400 for lodging at the Senator Inn in Augusta with leftover campaign funds and then collected the same amount in reimbursement via his $38-per-day legislative allowance for housing.

Fumed Patrick at Monday’s press gathering, “Fraud is fraud, and when there’s potential fraud, we should just look at it.”

Agreed Alfond, “If this doesn’t spell fraud, I don’t know what does.”

Actually, it spells pre-election “hit job.” And by the time the smoke cleared, that charge of fraud was in tatters.

After several hours of deliberations on Thursday, the Senate’s Conduct and Ethics Committee tabled the Democrats’ formal request for an investigation of Cushing because the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices already is looking into his case.

That probe, along with the whopper of a lawsuit Cushing’s sister recently filed against him for allegedly misappropriating more than a $1 million in family trust funds, will take far beyond Election Day to sort out. Put more simply, when it comes to political migraines, Cushing is currently in a league all his own.

Not so for Collins. In his case, the Senate ethics committee voted, 4-1, that the three-term senator from Wells had in fact done nothing wrong.

State law, after all, allows the use of leftover campaign funds for legislative expenses. And Collins’ attorney, former lawmaker Josh Tardy, provided ample documentation showing that Collins still ended up spending almost twice as much on legitimate lodging expenses than he got back in reimbursements.

Meaning Collins did not, as his accusers suggested, fraudulently turn his hotel expenses into a net personal profit. Nor did he break any law.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Plenty.

For starters, Patrick, the actual complainant against the two Republicans, was a no-show at Thursday’s hearing due to a scheduling conflict.

That left Alfond to forge ahead. Only under questioning by the ethics committee did he reveal that the Democrats’ research into possible double dipping began and ended with four senators: Cushing, Collins, Alfond himself and Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, the assistant minority leader.

Talk about convenient. The two Democrats chosen for scrutiny are already known to be clean as a whistle, while the two Republicans include one with a dark cloud already over his head and another who, surprise, turned on the news Monday evening to hear himself being labeled a fraud.

“I was very troubled when I first heard about this,” Collins, who is running for re-election to his fourth term representing Senate District 34, told the ethics committee in its first-ever gathering since its formation in 1989. “I’ve striven for the 14 years that I’ve been a legislator up here in Augusta to always do the best job I possibly could with integrity and honesty – to be honest, straightforward and always transparent with anything I always do.”

If he sounded like a man who’d just been sucker-punched, that’s because he was.

So, dear Democrats, why not (ahem) broaden the search a bit before stepping up to the microphones?

Why not, rather than cherry-pick the two Democratic Senate leaders, randomly choose a couple of fellow Dems for scrutiny and let the chips fall where they may?

Better yet, why not focus on a murky policy – which the ethics committee recommended in another 4-1 vote that the next Legislature do – rather than arbitrarily throw a Republican like Collins under the bus?

Cue the “they do it, too” defense. In a lengthy interview on Friday, Alfond claimed more than once that the Maine Republican Party, at the behest of Senate President Michael Thibodeau, had no problem filing an unfair ethics complaint against a Democrat challenging Thibodeau’s bid for re-election.

“The idea that this is being played for politics – we are partisans,” Alfond said. “We are people who play politics. That is our job. That is what we do as elected officials. That’s what we do.”

All-righty then. Give that man an “A” for candor.

Then there’s the timing of this whole brouhaha. Considering that the Collins reimbursement saga dates all the way back to 2014, it’s hard not to sympathize when he cries foul over a sneak attack launched a mere two weeks before the election.

To which Alfond replied that it all started a couple of weeks ago, when news broke that Cushing’s sister had followed up her lawsuit by filing a complaint to the state ethics commission about her brother’s PAC dealings.

“This is the research that both parties do in order to … get the voters, the taxpayers, Mainers all understanding the whole picture,” Alfond said.

Uh-uh. Witness the news release Alfond’s office put out after Thursday’s hearing: It claimed victory for the committee’s vote to revisit the reimbursement policy and included a quote once again lambasting Collins by Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, the lone vote against him on the committee.

What the release didn’t set straight was that Collins didn’t commit fraud on the taxpayers of Maine after all.

“That was a mistake,” Alfond conceded, looking back on Monday’s press conference. “There is no way … that Ron Collins was committing fraud.”

Eureka.

What makes last week’s dust-up so unfortunate is that at its core, a legitimate public policy issue cried out for bipartisan attention.

But that was all but drowned out by over-the-top mudslinging against a lawmaker who thought he was following the rules. A guy who, however unfairly, will be remembered by many on Nov. 8 as some kind of scam artist.

But hey, it’s all politics. Right?

Right. But that doesn’t make this ambush any less wrong.

Postscript: To the 200 or so readers who sent cards and emailed me after last Sunday’s column on my and my wife’s dearly departed dog, Fairbanks, thank you one and all. Your kind words, along with touching stories of your own four-legged friends, have lightened our heavy hearts.