February 18, 2011

GOP group that broke campaign law accepts biggest ethics panel fine ever

The PAC must pay $26,000 for spending report violations. In another vote, the Press Herald is cleared of a disclosure error.

By Rebekah Metzler rmetzler@mainetoday.com
MaineToday Media State House Writer

AUGUSTA - The out-of-state Republican group that was fined $26,000 by Maine's ethics commission Thursday said it will not appeal the finding.

The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices levied the largest fine in its history against the Republican State Leadership Committee for campaign finance report violations.

The group spent about $400,000 in five state Senate races during the final weeks of last fall's campaign and failed to properly report the spending.

The Maine Democratic Party raised the issue with the ethics commission in October, when staffers noticed that the group's political action committee reports said there was no spending. An independent expenditure report filed soon after said the Virginia-based organization had spent nearly $400,000.

A two-day delay in the group's filing of the independent expenditure report delayed matching money from Maine's public financing system for the Republican candidates' Democratic opponents.

All five Democrats lost.

"What impact it really had on our races, we'll never know," said Patsy Crockett of Augusta, who lost her bid for state Senate to Republican Roger Katz. "But the fact that the money came in so late made it extremely difficult to deal with."

The Republican State Leadership Committee spent money in Senate District 15 in Androscoggin County, Senate districts 24 and 25 in Kennebec County, Senate District 28 in Hancock County and Senate District 32 in Penobscot County.

Dan Riley, an attorney representing the organization, said it believed that Maine campaign finance laws were similar to those in other states and at the federal level, and that it never meant to violate Maine law.

"My client was operating on the assumption that the reporting trigger was dissemination of communications -- radio, mail and television -- and not the placement of the order, which is the law here in Maine," said Riley, of the Portland firm Bernstein Shur. "There was an attempt to comply with the law; they just simply did not understand."

Riley argued that a fine of $10,000 to $12,000 would be more appropriate, noting that the largest fine previously assessed by the commission was about $11,000.

He also noted that this was the first time the group had spent money in Maine that required independent expenditure reports.

The ethics commission's staff initially recommended a fine of $41,000, but reduced the recommendation based on information provided by the Republican State Leadership Committee.

The larger fine would have penalized the group for being late on two separate independent expenditure filings, but the group argued that it would have listed all of the expenditures on one report, which is common practice in Maine.

The Republican State Leadership Committee was fined $5,000 for filing an independent expenditure report late, $10,000 for the resulting delay in the distribution of matching funds, $10,000 for the late filing of a PAC report and $1,000 for substantially misreporting information on the independent expenditure report.

"Though it's a significant penalty compared to what we've done before, I'm not sure that we've ever really dealt with this significant amount of expenditures that were made at the end of a campaign that had an impact on a significant number of candidates," said Walt McKee, a Democrat who chairs the commission. "I think it is warranted and I think it's a relatively small amount compared to what was put in."

The commission, made up of two Democrats, two Republicans and one independent, voted unanimously in favor of the fine.

Mary Erin Casale, executive director of the Maine Democratic Party, said she was pleased with the decision.

"This is a significant fine and I think it does send a message that our finance laws are some of the toughest in the country and Mainers believe in transparency," she said.

(Continued on page 2)

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