January 4, 2011

Complaint alleges Press Herald broke election law by donating ad space

A newspaper executive said the ads were donated to the chamber of commerce for its use, not for the use of a political campaign.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — The state's ethics commission has been asked to investigate whether The Portland Press Herald violated campaign finance laws when $47,000 worth of donated advertising space was used for a political campaign.

Thomas Valleau, a former member of the Portland Charter Commission, filed a complaint Dec. 30 with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which enforces Maine's campaign finance laws.

Valleau alleges that the Press Herald had an arrangement with the Portland Regional Chamber that resulted in eight free full-page color ads advocating for a "yes" vote in a Nov. 2 referendum on amending the city charter to allow a popularly elected mayor.

Voters approved the question by a vote of 12,963 to 11,825. Valleau said the free advertising, which came in the last week of the campaign, may have been a decisive factor in the result. Valleau opposed the referendum question.

The ads did not indicate that the newspaper donated the space, but a newspaper executive said the ads were donated to the chamber of commerce for its use, not for the use of a political campaign.

Michelle Lester, vice president of advertising for MaineToday Media Inc., which owns the Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel, said in a statement that the chamber controlled the content of its advertising.

"The Portland Press Herald offers in-kind advertising space to the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce," she said. "The use of that space is at its discretion."

In an interview, Valleau contested that explanation.

"I don't buy it," he said. "The newspaper has never offered full-page color advertisements to the Portland chamber in all of human history, and it's a wonderful coincidence they would make this offer in the final week of an election campaign."

The chamber was a major contributor to the Elect Our Mayor/Yes on 1 political action committee. The PAC reported the in-kind donation from the Press Herald with Portland's city clerk on Dec. 14.

In an interview Monday, the chamber's executive vice president, Chris Hall, said he wanted to read the complaint before making a comment.

Chamber Chief Executive Officer Godfrey Wood was traveling and unavailable for comment. Last month, Wood told The Forecaster newspaper that the chamber has a sponsorship agreement with the Press Herald and Telegram for a weekly quarter-page ad.

He said the chamber requested additional advertising space to promote the elected mayor position, and consulted with the ethics commission before and after the Dec. 14 PAC report was filed.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the ethics commission, said the commission will likely take up the matter on Jan. 27 or Feb. 17.

He said he may make some preliminary inquires and ask the commission's attorney whether the commission has jurisdiction, since the issue concerns a municipal election.

Wayne noted that in 2009, the commission ruled that a political action committee funded by Penn National Gaming, which owns Hollywood Slots in Bangor, had failed to register and was late in filing two campaign reports in connection with a gaming referendum in Scarborough in 2008.

Valleau said he believes that Maine law required the Press Herald to register with the city and make disclosures and financial filings because the ads were a gift.

He said the issue is important because the public has the right to know who is funding attempts to influence people's votes.

"My goal is to prevent a repeat of this in future elections," he said in a news release. "It's important that voters feel they can trust their local newspapers to inform and educate their readers in a fair and balanced way."

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer can be contacted at 699-6261 or at: tbell@mainetoday.com

 

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