A group with ties to the Democratic National Committee is alleging that U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and 22 other Republican congressmen and -women violated congressional ethics laws when they signed an agreement with a national Republican committee in exchange for financial support during the 2016 election.

Under the so-called “Patriot Program,” Poliquin and the other congressmen promised to share the “political justification” for their legislative priorities, as well as their campaign strategy, with the National Republican Campaign Committee.

The complaint by the Washington, D.C.-based American Democracy Legal Fund alleges that the congressional incumbents violated House of Representative rules prohibiting the use of congressional resources, such as staff time, for the campaign or political purposes. The nine-page document requesting an investigation was sent Wednesday to David Skaggs, co-chairman of the Office of Congressional Ethics, an eight-member nonpartisan agency charged with reviewing allegations of misconduct by House members and their staff.

The complaint is the latest development stemming from revelations that Poliquin and other incumbents seen as vulnerable to Democratic challengers in 2016 signed the three-page agreement with the NRCC. The agreement has opened the freshman congressman to criticism from Democrats that he is beholden to outside interests, and not his constituents, in the 2nd Congressional District. Democrats’ characterization of Poliquin has consistently included assertions that his campaign donors are driving his legislative agenda, a charge vehemently disputed by Brent Littlefield, Poliquin’s political adviser.

Littlefield did not directly address the merits of the ethics complaint, instead dismissing it as a political stunt.

“While some want to talk politics a year before an election, Congressman Poliquin just passed his first authored bill through Congress helping parents and he passed an amendment to encourage job creation around former Maine military bases,” he said.

A spokesman for the NRCC dismissed the complaint Thursday.

“This ridiculous complaint is by a partisan complaint factory and completely without merit.” said Chris Pack.

Former Democratic state Sen. Emily Cain and Joe Baldacci are vying for the Democratic nomination to take on Poliquin in 2016.

Among the 13 requirements in the agreement for acceptance into the so-called Patriot Program – an initiative the NRCC established in 2009 as a way to protect vulnerable incumbents – is the submission of a campaign plan to the NRCC that includes “detailed, written legislative strategy that provides short-, intermediate-, and long-term legislative goals, including political justifications for those goals.”

It adds: “Be sure to include local issues unique to the district or region. Complete a Patriot Policy Priorities worksheet to be used by NRCC staff to evaluate legislative priorities for the current Congress and to promote and advocate for those priorities where appropriate.”

The agreement, signed by Poliquin and his chief of staff, also suggests that Poliquin’s campaign will have to use NRCC-sanctioned vendors for services such as polling, mail communications, fundraising and research. Also, one item in the agreement, first obtained by The Washington Post, says that the member will work with the NRCC to create an “aggressive cycle-long online fundraising plan” with specified goals. “Campaigns that consistently fail to reach monthly fundraising goals … are subject to direct involvement from the NRCC online fundraising team.”

Brad Woodhouse, who filed the ethics complaint for the American Democracy Legal Fund, argued that those provisions of the agreement constituted the use of congressional staff for campaign purposes.

“Note that the Patriot Program is designed only for current members of the House of Representatives, thus the contract contemplates that the members would have official resources available,” Woodhouse wrote. “And to make it even clearer that official resources are at stake, the members’ chief of staff is also listed as a contracting party and required to sign the contract separately.”

He added, “If members and their staff use legislative plans and strategies crafted during House working periods and using House resources as required by the contract, they will violate federal law and House Ethics rules.”

It was not immediately clear Thursday how quickly the Office of Congressional Ethics will address the complaint.

Woodhouse, who operates The American Democracy Legal Fund, is a former Democratic National Committee communications director. The liberal watchdog group has filed a number of complaints with the Federal Elections Commission against Republican candidates and political action committees. In 2014 it received donations from National Education Association and American Bridge, a Democratic political action committee that spent over $17 million during the 2014 congressional elections.

The complaint by The American Democracy Legal Fund is unlikely to be the last time that Poliquin’s involvement with the Patriot Program becomes an issue.

Larry Noble, chief legal counsel for the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., told the Press Herald in September that the agreement shows an unusual level of coordination between candidate campaigns and the NRCC.

“I question whether (the NRCC) can do an independent expenditure with anyone who signs one of these things because they’re basically helping run the campaign,” said Noble, a former legal counsel for the Federal Election Commission. “They’re requiring the campaign to meet certain standards and to provide so much information about how the campaign is going to operate, the issues it’s going to deal with, what its proposals are going to be. To me, that really undermines the NRCC’s ability to do any independent expenditures.”

If proven, such coordination is not prohibited, but it could limit how much money the NRCC can spend on Poliquin’s behalf in 2016. An independent expenditure is money spent by a political committee such as the NRCC to either support or oppose a candidate with political communications, such as radio, television or digital advertising. There is no limit on the amount of money a political committee can spend on independent expenditures.

However, such limitless spending requires the committee to operate independently of a candidate’s campaign. If Noble is correct in suggesting that the agreement Poliquin signed ties the NRCC too closely to his campaign, then Poliquin would lose a critical source of financial support during his bid for a second term in Maine’s 2nd District.

The NRCC spent nearly $1.3 million on Poliquin’s behalf in 2014, when he defeated Cain and independent Blaine Richardson. Poliquin has raised about $1 million for his campaign so far.

Pack, the NRCC spokesman, said last month that the agreement is “for informational purposes only to know what members are interested in or going to be advocating for.”

Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @stevemistler