AUGUSTA — Two Democratic state senators say Republican Sens. Andre Cushing of Newport and Ron Collins of Wells have defrauded Maine taxpayers by double-dipping on their expense reports for lodging and travel.

Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, and Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Cushing and Collins have inappropriately received expense reimbursement from the Senate office for things they had previously paid for with re-election campaign funds or political action committee funds.

“His big donors had already paid for the damn trip, he didn’t have any shred of right to make the taxpayers pay them back,” Patrick said of Cushing in a State House news conference Monday. He said Cushing had “acknowledged the wrongdoing,” blaming it on an accounting mistake, but he and Alfond were not willing to accept the explanation.

“That doesn’t pass the straight-face test – it’s total crap,” Patrick said.

He and Alfond said they hadn’t gone through expense and campaign finance reports for all 35 state senators, so they didn’t know whether other senators of either party had used campaign funds and Senate reimbursements in the same manner.

Collins said Senate rules do not prohibit him from seeking reimbursement for expenses paid with his reelection campaign funds. He said he checked with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices before he spent campaign funds on the lodging, and he accused Democrats of trying to smear an incumbent Republican two weeks before the election in a bid to regain the majority in the Senate.

“These records have been sitting around in file cabinets over at ethics for a couple years now or more,” Collins said. “And they are just now bringing it out? It’s very obvious to me what they are trying to do, they are trying to pick up a seat by tarnishing a sitting senator’s reputation. It’s … unfortunate they have to use these tactics in an attempt to get the majority.”

Cushing said he was advised by the ethics commission that the state couldn’t directly reimburse his PAC for travel expenditures, and that he would have to submit expense statements to the Senate personally and then reimburse the PAC, which he said he has done.

“I’m not as flush as some people are and it’s easier for me to try and track the expense for my travel to my political action committee,” Cushing said, adding that he doesn’t believe he violated any laws or even any rules.

He said he had failed to document the repayments to the PAC during the last reporting period, and that the report is being amended.

“I have maintained the policy that I was advised by (the ethics commission) to report this so that it would be properly documented where the money came from to reimburse either myself or, in this case, the PAC for those expenses,” Cushing said. “I do not believe I have violated any ethics rules or any state statutes in reimbursing myself and ultimately returning the money to where it originated, which was from the PAC.”

Neither Cushing nor Collins addressed the question of whether it was proper to ask taxpayers, who fund the operation of the Legislature, to pay for expenses that already have been covered by another entity – such as PACs, which often are used to help other candidates of the same party.

Tim Feeley, spokesman for Attorney General Janet Mills, said Mills would not comment on whether any legal concerns were raised by the use of Senate expense reimbursements.

The Portland Press Herald was unable to immediately confirm that the ethics commission gave the advice described by Collins and Cushing. The commission has jurisdiction over campaign finance spending, but it does not oversee the legislative reimbursement system.

Patrick and Alfond, the Democrats who drew attention to the reimbursements, produced copies of documents showing that on Nov. 11, 2014, Collins prepaid $2,400 of lodging costs at the Senator Inn in Augusta for the upcoming legislative session by expending funds from his 2014 re-election campaign. He later submitted expense statements to the Senate for reimbursement of those same lodging expenditures. Reimbursements submitted to the Senate are funded with taxpayer money, as part of the Legislature’s budget.

Cushing paid for lodging and airfare for a trip to a summit meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Seattle in 2015 by making an expenditure from his Respect Maine PAC. But he then also requested and was paid a $1,796 reimbursement for the same trip by the secretary of the Senate, according to state documents.

Alfond said Cushing took “corporate interest money out of his PAC, paid for these trips and then asked the Maine taxpayer to refund these same trips. This is double-dipping, it is intentional, there is no way you can sign a document every single week and not know what you are doing. This is egregious.”

Both he and Patrick also called on their fellow lawmakers to tighten the rules and improve transparency on legislative expense reports. The reports are public records and can be requested under the state’s Freedom of Access Act, but they are not posted online or made readily available for public inspection in the way that campaign finance reports are.

The two Democrats called on Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau to convene a meeting of the Senate’s five-member ethics committee to review the allegations.

But Thibodeau refused, saying Democrats were playing politics just before an election.

“If the Democrats were truly concerned about this issue, they could have reached out to me at any time,” Thibodeau said in a prepared statement. “Instead, they chose to call a news conference, and then send a letter addressed to me after it started – a letter that did not include the information that they provided to the press and have still not provided to my office.

“If Democrats want to talk about changing existing law regarding state legislative reimbursements in the next session, I would be happy to have that discussion,” Thibodeau said.

He also referred to two state laws that address campaign finance and per-diem reimbursements for lawmakers.

The statute on the use of campaign funds says that they may be spent on legislative expenses provided that “each expenditure is itemized on expenditure reports.”

The law on reimbursements for state lawmakers allows each member of the Senate or House to collect a $32 meal allowance and a $38 housing allowance for each day they attend the legislative session. The statute doesn’t address what should come of the “allowance” if the expense has already been paid for.

Alfond and Patrick said they did not attempt to do a comprehensive review of all state senators and acknowledged there was no regular audit of legislative expense reports that correlated them with PAC or campaign spending.

Jim Cyr, the spokesman for Senate Republicans, said Cushing already had filed an amended report to the state ethics commission regarding his PAC spending, and the commission will have to determine how it wants to proceed.

“It should come as no surprise that some Senate Democrats are hurling accusations at their Republican colleagues two weeks before an election,” Cyr wrote in an email. “What should be alarming to all of us is that they would hold a news conference based on unfounded accusations of wrongdoing.”


Correction: This story was revised at 12:02 p.m., Oct. 25, 2016, to reflect that Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, said Senate rules do not prohibit him from seeking reimbursement for expenses paid with his reelection campaign funds. An earlier version of this story misstated Collins’ assertion.

 


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