November 4, 2012

Bill Nemitz: Candidate's safe, thanks to bad call

This story was updated at 10:50 a.m. 11/4 to reflect that all candidates are prohibited from involvement in outside PAC spending on their behalf.

A word of advice to any future politicians who find themselves under the microscope of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices: When in doubt, try the "baseball mode" defense.

It worked like a charm last week for Republican Sen. Nichi Farnham of Bangor. She had some 'splainin to do about her name appearing atop a political action committee that has funneled oodles of cash into getting her re-elected in Senate District 32.

"My youngest son is in Little League, so I was in baseball mode," explained Farnham when asked by the commission Wednesday why, from March through early October, she apparently forgot that she was listed as a primary decision-maker and fundraiser for the Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC.

That would be the same PAC that on Oct. 3, with Farnham still atop its registration papers, spent $72,919 against Geoffrey Gratwick, Farnham's Democratic challenger.

Farnham's faux pas was, shall we say, an obvious foul: It's against the law for candidates to have any involvement in such outside help.

Let's go to the replay:

Back in March, just after U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe stunned Maine and the nation with her announcement that she was leaving the U.S. Senate, all hell broke loose in the State House.

Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney and Assistant Majority Leader Debra Plowman, upon deciding to launch primary campaigns for Congress, quickly stepped down as the officers and primary decision-makers for the Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC.

Enter Farnham and Sen. Thomas Saviello of Wilton, drafted by Republican leaders to take over the PAC -- at least until, as Farnham put it repeatedly last week, party leaders "did their sorting out."

And who exactly asked Farnham to serve as the PAC's "placeholder"?

She doesn't remember.

"There were a lot of people milling around, doing whatever, trying to sort things out," Farnham told the commission. "Everybody else had sorting out to do but me."

Pressed commission member Margaret Matheson, "So you were basically in a roomful of people?"

"No," replied Farnham. "It was just, you know, maybe around the offices or kind of behind the Senate chamber. People were just standing around, like they do."

Besides, Farnham insisted, she has zero interest in all this money stuff anyway.

"It was very apparent the whole time I've been a senator -- I'm not interested in what goes on with that aspect," she said. "I don't care for whatever these PACs do. It's not interesting to me. It's not something I want to be involved in."

Fair enough. And to whom did Farnham communicate her reluctance to stay involved with the PAC beyond a few days of "sorting things out"?

Again, hard to say.

"Whoever would listen," Farnham told the commission. "I don't remember who, exactly, but they knew, based on my role as a senator and how I acted as a senator. I came to Augusta, I did my committee meetings, I was in session and then I went home. I have kids. I'm one of the rare people, I think, in Augusta that has family and kids and other things I need to be part of. So this would never have been something I could be involved in."

Except she still was. In fact, Farnham was copied on a June 14 letter from Sara Vanderwood, the PAC's treasurer, to the ethics commission appealing a fine for failure to submit a primary campaign report on time.

Letter? What letter?

(Continued on page 2)

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