AUGUSTA — The state ethics commission voted Wednesday against launching an investigation into whether a Democratic candidate for Cumberland County sheriff, Michael Edes, had illegally coordinated with a political action committee that has spent $100,000 on his behalf.

The investigation was requested by Edes’ opponent, Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce. In a hastily arranged meeting less than a week before the June 10 primary, members of the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices said Joyce did not provide enough evidence to justify an investigation.

Joyce’s request was in response to a late ad blitz by the Citizens for a Safe Cumberland County, a political action committee funded by Michael Liberty, a former Portland real estate developer who has donated primarily to Republican candidates and who is a friend of Edes.

Edes has said he has not spoken to Liberty in more than a year, a claim that Joyce told the commission on Wednesday doesn’t jibe with the money spent on his race.

“Friends talk and this is a lot of money,” he said, adding, “How do you buy that this golden egg just appears and just ignore this?”

Paul Brunetti, a Brunswick attorney involved with the Edes campaign, said he knew that the PAC existed, but nobody from the campaign had interacted with its officers or Liberty. He said the Edes campaign found out about the ad buy when the public did.

Dan Walker, an attorney with Preti Flaherty representing the PAC, said the complaint contained “a lot of questions and speculation, but these are just allegations. There is not sufficient grounds for an investigation.”

‘IT’S ALL POLITICS’

After the meeting Walker said the complaint was politically motivated.

“They’re trying to maneuver themselves in the last second of the campaign, so they file this with no evidence of anything,” Walker said. “It’s all politics.”

The commission’s vote comes as the Democratic primary has become more contentious, and days after the launch of an anti-Joyce advertising campaign paid for by the PAC.

Along with triggering Joyce’s complaint, the support from Liberty highlighted the fact that Edes was a registered Republican from 1994 to 2010 and enrolled as a Democrat in July of last year.

The political action committee supporting Edes has many hallmarks of a conservative operation. In addition to Liberty’s history of donating to Republican candidates and the Maine Republican Party, campaign finance and corporate filings show that the Liberty-funded PAC has hired a longtime conservative operative to produce the negative radio ads and campaign mailers that have accused Joyce of overseeing a Cumberland County Jail that is unsafe, highlighted by incidents of inmates having sex.

Dennis Hersom, the manager of Joyce’s re-election campaign, asked the commission to review several areas that might prove that the PAC and Edes’ campaign had illegally coordinated, including the source funding for the PAC, the shared use of campaign photos and whether Democratic voter lists purchased by Edes were distributed to the PAC.

Walker, in a letter to the commission, rebutted each allegation, saying the PAC’s political consulting firm, Vital Impact Campaigns LLC, had obtained the voter lists through its extensive political work and that the campaign photos used in its mailers were already in the public domain.

Maine election law prohibits candidate campaigns and PACs from coordinating efforts. One reason for the prohibition is that candidate campaigns are subject to strict individual donor limits designed to avoid the appearance of corruption, and to prevent wealthy donors from influencing a candidate’s position. PACs can spend unlimited amounts of money on political ads and other communications to influence voters.

Proving a candidate and PAC are coordinating efforts is often difficult.

The commission also rejected launching an inquiry into Brentwood Financial, a company run by Liberty, according to corporate filings in Florida. The commission could have subpoenaed bank records to determine whether Brentwood should have filed as a political action committee and disclosed its donors. Commission Chairman Walter McKee said the panel could launch such a probe of virtually any political action committee operating in Maine.

TIES TO CONSERVATIVE GROUPS

Meanwhile, the intrigue in the sheriff’s race continues.

Besides the disclosure that Edes only recently enrolled as a Democrat, the PAC spending money on his behalf has hired a conservative political firm frequently used by Republican legislative candidates and PACs.

The PAC’s ads in support of Edes were produced by Vital Impact Campaigns LLC, a subsidiary of Strategic Advocacy, a political consulting firm run by Roy Lenardson, a 20-year veteran of Maine politics working almost exclusively for Republicans, according to corporate filings with the Maine Secretary of State.

Strategic Advocacy operates in Maine and in Florida and Lenardson has close ties to conservative groups in both states, the Maine Heritage Policy Center and the Foundation for Government Accountability.

In 2010, Lenardson’s firm received roughly $65,000 for producing mailers and ads to support the Maine Senate PAC run by former state Sen. Richard Rosen, now Gov. Paul LePage’s acting finance chief. His firm was also used to oppose several casino expansion proposals in 2011.

Strategic Advocacy uses limited liability companies to keep its work discreet. Vital Impact Campaigns LLC and Action Point Campaigns LLC are subsidiaries of Strategic Advocacy, according to corporate filings with the Maine secretary of state.

Action Point was also paid for political ads it produced during the 2012 legislative races. Lenardson told the Portland Press Herald in March that his firm was also doing consulting work for this year’s legislative contests.

In 2002, Lenardson was the campaign manager for Republican gubernatorial candidate Peter Cianchette. According to a Press Herald story from the campaign, the Cianchette campaign had been asked by the ethics commission to return more than $9,000 in donations that exceeded the legal limit. One of those donations, $4,000, was from Michael Liberty.

Lenardson hasn’t responded to a request for comment.

Liberty has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Three years ago, Lenardson’s firm entered a partnership with Preti Flaherty, one of the largest lobbying firms at the State House. Walker, the attorney from Preti, indicated that he had discussed the ethics complaint with Lenardson, who denied allegations that the PAC or his firm had obtained the Democratic voter list from the Edes campaign.

The $100,000 PAC expenditure appears to be a state record for a county sheriff race and far exceeds the money spent by either of the candidates. Edes has spent approximately $30,000, while Joyce has spent about $14,000, according to campaign finance records. The PAC money in the race rivals that of third-party expenditures in the 2012 legislative races, which shattered state records. In 2012, outside groups or PACs spent more than $100,000 on eight state Senate races, a first.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

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Twitter: @stevemistler