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?

"There was probably a stack of mail sitting on my kitchen counter," Farnham speculated. "But if I looked at it, it might have been quick or I might have even thrown it out because I was out of that mode."

(Note to the citizens of District 32: How does it feel to be represented by a senator who throws out her unopened mail?)

Onward to Aug. 31, by which time Farnham's re-election campaign was (to borrow a baseball term) in full swing.

That was the day her husband, Doug, and his business, Getchell Ice, donated $1,000 and $1,500 respectively to the Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC. The PAC that Sen. Farnham forgot she was running -- at least according to state records.

In fact, the lightbulb didn't go on until Oct. 5, when Farnham, having just chatted with a curious reporter from the Bangor Daily News, had her name removed from the PAC's registration form. That was two days after the PAC spent $72,919 lambasting her opponent and one day after the Maine Democratic Party blew the whistle on Farnham with the ethics commission.

So there Farnham sat last week, surrounded by Republican leaders and lawyers, explaining with a straight face that she's more interested in Little League than in the battle for a Senate seat -- her Senate seat -- that has shattered all legislative spending records. A battle that as of last week, according to Press Herald State House reporter Steve Mistler, was fast approaching a half-million dollars in outside spending.

And there sat the five commissioners, unanimously accepting their staff's recommendation that the PAC be fined $250 while Farnham be sent on her way without so much as a slap on the wrist.

"The commission staff understands why the Maine Democratic Party would be alarmed by the appearance of the situation, given the continued listing of Sen. Farnham on the PAC's registration form while the PAC made independent expenditures affecting her election," wrote Jonathan Wayne, the commission's executive director, in his recommendation against any further investigation of Farnham.

Wayne continued, "If she had actually been functioning as a primary decision-maker of the PAC this summer and fall, there would have been grounds for serious concern and further investigation."

And how did the staff know Farnham had no involvement?

Because she and those running the PAC said so, that's how.

Farnham "says she 'let it be known' that she would no longer be involved in the PAC, although she does not explain precisely how she conveyed this message," noted Wayne.

Now, I'm not suggesting that any of these folks are telling anything other than the truth. And it's worth pointing out that for a Clean Election candidate like Farnham to knowingly remain atop a PAC that was spending money on her behalf, direct involvement or no direct involvement, would be a colossally stupid thing to do.

But by not so much as reprimanding Farnham for failing to keep track of how and when her name was being used, the commission set a troubling precedent:

Henceforth, a candidate who breaches the firewall between his or her Clean Election funding and the nearest friendly PAC need only look wide-eyed at the commission and declare, "Sorry, it was Little League season!"

Also known, in "baseball mode," as freezing them with your slider.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com

 

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