The political action committees that State House lawmakers use to funnel cash from lobbyists and other donors to the campaigns of legislative candidates could face increasing scrutiny in 2018.

On Thursday, members of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices said they want to create a way to randomly sample and review PAC expenditures, especially in PACs run by sitting legislators.

But first, the commission members seemed to agree, they needed to give the lawmakers running those PACs “fair warning” that their spending could be subject to more intensive review.

The five-member panel asked its staff to solicit feedback from PAC leaders on what could be a significant policy shift for the commission, the watchdog for Maine’s campaign finance laws.

The increased focus on so-called leadership PACs was prompted in part by recent ethics complaints, including one settled in August with the commission levying a $9,000 fine against Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Newport. Cushing, the Senate’s assistant majority leader, could have been fined up to $105,000 for submitting flawed or overdue finance reports related to a loan he made from the PAC to his family business.

Other cases involving former Democratic lawmakers and their misuse or perceived misuse of PAC funds added to concerns that commissioners need to do more to ensure the funds are being documented accurately and spent according to state rules.

There are now 25 to 30 active leadership PACs registered with the commission. The most recent campaign finance reports, filed in July, show the PACs have a wide range of donors and cash balances, with some showing a negative balance and outstanding debts while others have as much as $20,000 on hand.

The next filing deadline for PAC reports is next Thursday.

Commissioner Richard Nass, a former Republican lawmaker who has worked as a lobbyist in New Hampshire, said leadership PACs are clearly vehicles used by lobbyists to gain access to key lawmakers, and by the lawmakers to raise money for campaigns and causes.

“It’s all about access,” he said.

Nass said many lawmakers running PACs are reporting activities honestly and following the rules, but a few are misusing the system. He also voiced concerns that any increased scrutiny of PAC activities could prompt the Legislature to change reporting laws and prohibit the ethics commission from reviewing the spending.

“Where the money comes from and what they do with the money, you are going to be surprised, I think, in how loosey goosey it is,” Nass told the commission, adding that it was fair to warn those running PACs that they would see increased scrutiny.

“So people know this is coming up, so they have an opportunity to tighten things up, to be ready to explain what they are doing, don’t surprise them with this stuff,” he said.

Commissioner William Lee said putting lawmakers on notice would also force them to take their reporting requirements more seriously.

In addition to Cushing, two other lawmakers have been penalized for PAC reporting violations in the past two years.

Former Portland Democrat Diane Russell was fined $500 in July 2016 for failing to disclose the donation of an email list from a PAC she operated to her unsuccessful state Senate campaign. Russell finished third in a three-way Democratic primary in the race, which was won by Ben Chipman.

The initial complaint against Russell was that she used the PAC as a personal slush fund, but the commission dismissed those charges, leveled by a Chipman supporter.

Another lawmaker, former state Sen. John Tuttle, a Sanford Democrat, lost a re-election bid after media reports that about 55 percent of his PAC funds had been spent to buy tires, pay for car repairs, reimburse himself for travel, and pay his wife and daughter for computer services and keeping his books.

Commission Chairwoman Margaret Matheson said her goal in seeking a deeper audit-type look at PAC expenditures was to ensure transparency and not to question any legal expenditures. “When (PAC expenditures) are unreported, you lose the transparency that we are suppose to be fostering here,” Matheson said.

Commissioner Meri Lowry said after the meeting that the panel decided to warn lawmakers about future scrutiny rather than audit existing PAC reports because it was unclear whether commissioners have the authority to take a proactive role in policing campaign finance reports. The panel normally launches investigations only after receiving a complaint.

“We are being careful and fair in moving to bring some needed light to an area that has very little regulation,” Lowry said.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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