June 8, 2012

Big donors were key to PACs of legislators

A study finds they provided more than $12 million to the political groups over a decade, money that some say could be used to give clout to the 'heavy hitters.'A study finds they provided more than $12 million to the political groups over a decade, money that some say could be used to give clout to the 'heavy hitters.'

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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