May 13, 2012

Loophole in Clean Election law allows private funds

The loophole enabled publicly financed candidates to raise a combined $21,860 between January and March.

By COLIN WOODARD Staff Writer

For more than a decade, critics have complained of a loophole in Maine's Clean Election law. Candidates who pay for their campaigns using taxpayers' funds -- and thus avoid accusations of being beholden to special interests -- can and do raise thousands of dollars in private donations for their personal political action committees, or "leadership PACs."

The problem isn't going away, with substantial sums being raised months ahead of State House primaries.

From January to March of this year, 11 legislators who ran or are currently running as Clean Election candidates raised a combined $21,860 from lobbyists, corporations and individual supporters, according to disclosures filed April 20 with the state ethics commission. For a sense of scale, each Clean Election House candidate will run their general election campaign on a state payment of $3,937, a state Senate candidate, $18,124.

While prohibited from spending funds raised for their leadership PACs on their own campaigns, candidates are free to dispense them to the campaigns and PACs of their political allies and party. PAC owners can also reimburse themselves for non-campaign travel expenses, and can buy ads for or against candidates in other races, including those between other Clean Election candidates. In theory, funds given to other PACs could also be used as "independent expenditures" to boost the very candidate who initially raised them, or to attack their opponent.

"It's a classic loophole," says Michael Franz, associate professor of government at Bowdoin College. "If the intention was to clear up the connections between donors and the influence of money, this does violate the spirit of the law."

Leadership PACs controlled by Clean Election candidates also spent $23,924 in the first quarter of 2012, most of it going to state and county party campaign committees or the campaigns of other legislators and would-be legislators.

Among these PACs, the Alfond Business Community & Democracy PAC, controlled by Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, raised the most money this past quarter. The PAC raised $5,970 from 10 donors, including former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rosa Scarcelli ($2,000); Kevin Mahaney of Olympia Properties ($1,000); Brookline, Mass., pub and restaurant owner David Brilliant ($1,000), and Developers Collaborative Predevelopment LLC ($500), whose members developed several projects in southern Maine, including West Falmouth Crossing and the Chestnut Street Lofts in Portland.

Alfond's PAC made one donation: $134 to ActBlue Maine, a Massachusetts-based PAC supporting Democratic candidates.

This past quarter, the most generous of these PACs was Cain for Maine, controlled by House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, which made a single $7,000 contribution to the House Democratic Campaign Committee. Cain, who is running for state Senate, also raised $250 for her PAC from lobbyists Federle Mahoney and $1,840 in in-kind support from Bernstein Shur, a Portland law-and-lobbying firm. Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, gave $3,000 to the House DCC via his McCabe for Leadership PAC.

Two Clean Election legislators partially emptied their leadership PACs in anticipation of running for Congress. On March 1, House Majority Leader Jon Courtney, R-Springvale, doled out $4,280 from his Common Sense Solutions for Maine's Future PAC to 16 recipients, including the Maine Republican Party and seven GOP county committees in the 1st Congressional District, and the campaigns of fellow Republicans Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls, Andre Cushing of Hampden and state party Vice Chair Ruth Summers. Courtney and House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, jointly control another PAC, The Pine Tree Fund, which made no expenditures but received a single $5,000 contribution from U.S. Sen. Susan Collins' leadership PAC. (Nutting's re-election campaign is privately financed.)

Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, who contemplated a U.S. House bid, gave out $1,600 from his High Hopes PAC last quarter, including $500 to his own abortive congressional campaign. Other recipients included the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee ($1,000) and his party's committee in Franklin County.

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