Two Maine groups leading a referendum drive to “get money out” of politics and increase transparency in political campaigns are taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in out-of-state contributions, including several large donations from a nonprofit organization with unclear funding sources.

The campaign, which would put Maine on the leading edge of a national effort to overhaul campaign finance laws, has depended heavily on funding from nonprofit organizations that can legally shield donors. Overall, about 80 percent of the $1.3 million received by Mainers for Accountable Elections has come from people and organizations outside of Maine. About 6 percent of the contributions came from individual Mainers, according to campaign finance reports filed through Sept. 30.

New finance reports released Friday revealed no significant change in the donation trend.

The contribution pattern has caught the eyes of critics, who accuse Question 1 campaign leaders of relying on the same outside influence they are trying to suppress.

“For a group that’s advocating that money in politics is evil and corrupt, they have an awful lot of large checks in the hundreds of thousands of dollar range,” said Matthew Gagnon, the CEO of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative advocacy group. “It’s an interesting, special breed of hypocrisy.”

Andrew Bossie, who is leading the Yes on 1 campaign, acknowledged the funding pattern, but said the campaign is a grassroots effort because 1,600 Mainers have given small amounts. Bossie said the campaign is designed to reduce the influence of large individual or group contributors and make elected officials more responsive to the average Mainer.

“We’re incredibly proud of our support in Maine and from folks out of the state that want to see us lead the country again in passing reforms that put everyday people first in their government and in their elections,” he said. “Every single donation has been disclosed, not only to the letter of the law, but we’ve gone beyond that with disclosing small donors and also posting our campaign finance reports right on our website.”

REVITALIZING MAINE’S 1996 LAW

Some of the Yes campaign’s money is from far, far away, including $50,000 from J.J. Abrams, a Santa Monica, California, resident with Maine ties, and the director of the upcoming Star Wars movie “The Force Awakens.” Other contributions include $200,000 from Sean Eldridge, the husband of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes; and $50,000 from Pat Stryker, the Colorado heiress of Stryker Corp. and a prolific donor to progressive candidates and causes.

The support from high-profile donors underscores the potential national significance of the campaign for Question 1.

The question would revitalize the Maine Clean Election Act, the voter-initiated law from 1996 that created the state’s public campaign-financing system for those running for the Legislature or governor. Candidates who choose to participate could not accept private donations, but would receive up to $3 million from the Clean Election Fund – up from the present maximum of $2 million.

To fund the Clean Election program, Question 1 would eliminate $6 million in unspecified business tax incentive programs from the state’s two-year budget – a feature that prompted the Maine State Chamber of Commerce to announce its opposition to the question last week.

The referendum also would increase the penalties for violating campaign finance regulations and require organizations that buy political ads to disclose their top three donors.

CURBING THE OUTSIDE INFLUENCE

Just like the 1996 referendum that made Maine a pioneer in establishing a public campaign-financing system, this year’s effort is tied to a national movement fueled by the explosive growth in spending on state and federal races.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which loosened restrictions on campaign spending, opened the faucet.

In 2012, candidates, political action committees and outside groups spent over $7 billion on federal races, according to the Federal Elections Commission. In Maine, outside groups spent more than the candidates themselves in 2014 and poured $14 million into gubernatorial and legislative contests – shattering records that had been set in 2012 and 2010.

Nothing proposed in Question 1 would limit outside groups from continuing to spend unlimited amounts of cash in Maine. However, advocates of Question 1 assert that strong public financing will curb the influence of outside money on candidates.

THE BIGGEST DONOR: PROTEUS FUND

One of the leading advocates for public campaign financing is Lawrence Lessig, who made a $32 donation to Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. A Harvard Law professor, Lessig is currently seeking the Democratic nomination for president. Central to his platform is the bid to enact the Citizen Equality Act, a package of election reforms that includes funding federal campaigns with taxpayer dollars and private small-dollar donations – essentially a federal version of the Maine Clean Election Act.

Lessig’s vision appears to be supported by the biggest donor to Question 1. The Proteus Fund and its accompanying ballot question committee had given $550,000 to the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and Mainers for Accountable Elections through Sept. 30. Proteus’ $350,000 accounted for over 23 percent of the accountable election group’s funding.

Proteus is hardly a household name. But the Amherst, Massachusetts, nonprofit is a key player in a network of progressive interest groups seeking to implement campaign finance reform.

Similarly focused groups include the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause and Every Voice, which had combined to donate over $217,000 to the proponents of Question 1 through the Sept. 30 reporting period.

According to its latest filings with the Internal Revenue Service, Proteus awarded over $56.7 million in grants between 2009 and 2013 to a variety of interest groups. Since 2009, the group’s Piper Fund has distributed multiple grants to state organizations supporting public campaign financing, including $195,000 to the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections since 2012.

Proteus lists some of its Piper Fund donors on its website, but specific dollar amounts are omitted. The donors include prominent progressive election contributors, such as the Jennifer and Jonathan Allan Soros Foundation. Jonathan Soros is the son of financier George Soros, who last year was ranked No. 12 in contributions to federal candidates, parties and political action committees at $3.8 million, according to The Center for Responsive Politics.

Jonathan Soros is a vocal advocate of publicly funded campaigns and has launched an effort to support federal and state-level candidates that back campaign finance reforms, including a public financing system for all federal elections.

Proteus’ ballot committee has reported one $100,000 contribution from Bernard Schwartz, a New York resident who is also a top donor to the Democratic National Committee. Trellis Stepter, a program officer for the Proteus Action League, said the remaining $450,000 came from grants from the Colorado-based Voqal Fund, another group that supports Proteus’ campaign finance work in 17 states.

Kristen Perry, a spokeswoman for Voqal, said the organization does not have donors. Its revenues are derived from royalties from leasing excess spectrum from its Education Broadband Service to Clearwire, a subsidiary of Sprint. A portion of the royalties and other investments are then budgeted to the Voqal Fund. Perry said she could not immediately provide revenue figures.

“Our democratic institutions will not serve the public as long as monied interests can buy results,” Voqal President John Schwartz said in a statement.

Stepter added, “For us there’s no attempt to hide donors. We’re fully transparent about who our donors are. We have no interest in Maine that we gain from the law other than seeing everyday people’s voices heard in the democratic process.”

RESPONSE TO CITIZENS UNITED

The focus on public financing appears to be replacing a previous push to undo Citizens United, an effort that would require amending the U.S. Constitution, something that has happened only 17 times since 1791.

Advocates for public financing believe taxpayer funding of elections reduces the potential for corruption. But skeptics contend that public financing will only increase campaign spending, particularly among the so-called dark money nonprofits that are not required to identify their contributors.

“The fact that (a millionaire) can’t influence a candidate doesn’t mean that he’s going to pack up and go away,” said Gagnon, the Maine Heritage Policy Center executive. “It means he’s going to channel money into other outlets, like (a nonprofit) or political action committee, a ballot question committee, or a political party. You’ll have more dark groups with less transparent money.”

Gagnon’s group is a nonprofit that shields its donors. He previously worked for the Republican Governors Association, which funneled $5.1 million into Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election campaign in 2014 without having to disclose its donors in Maine finance reports.

The role of nonprofit groups in campaign finance has come into focus since the Citizens United decision. While so-called Super PACs have generated media attention for their ability to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, they still have to disclose their contributions. That disclosure requirement has led to a proliferation of nonprofit groups, sometimes created specifically to enable anonymous contributions to political campaigns. The nonprofits then donate to political action committees, creating a money trail that goes dark once it reaches the nonprofit’s general treasury.

Bossie, the Question 1 campaign spokesman, acknowledges that his group has benefited from Proteus, a nonprofit. But he rejects the notion that the organization or its campaign hasn’t practiced the transparency message that it preaches.

“They (Proteus) have disclosed a lot of their donors,” he said. “They also have general treasury funds. I think they’ve disclosed the donations that have come in to influence this referendum to the letter of the law.”

Bossie expressed support for a proposal by the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which oversees campaign financing reporting rules, that would compel nonprofit organizations to reveal their donors. He also pointed out that Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, a nonprofit group that supports Question 1, registered with the state as a ballot question committee.

As a result, it cannot stockpile money anonymously but must report all of its contributions and expenditures in the campaign.

“We disclosed every single contribution that we have received in the last year and every single expenditure. The campaign has been completely transparent in the money that it has received,” he said. “All of this is to the idea that we can change the rules for a more democratic, more transparent and more accountable process in the future.”

 


Comments are not available on this story.