AUGUSTA — The Maine Senate’s Conduct and Ethics Committee will meet Thursday to take up a complaint about “double dipping” by two Republican senators who were reimbursed by taxpayers for lodging and travel after those expenses had been previously paid for with political action committee or campaign funds.

Sens. Andre Cushing, R-Newport, and Ron Collins, R-Wells, asked Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, on Tuesday to request a meeting of the five-member panel, a day after two Democratic senators blasted the payments as unethical.

The chairman of the ethics panel, Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, declined comment on the complaint against Cushing and Collins but said he was still finalizing details for a meeting Thursday.

“We will start the committee by laying out the ground rules and will go from there,” Burns said.

Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and Sen. John Patrick, D- Rumford, charged at a State House press conference Monday that the two Republican senators had wrongly taken the expense reimbursements.

Alfond and Patrick also asked that the Senate’s ethics panel meet to review the cases and to see if loopholes on expense reimbursements should be tightened. In question are out-of-state travel expenses and per diem allowances for lodging and food. While the allowances are public records and can be requested under the state’s Freedom of Access Act, they are not posted online or made readily available for public inspection in the way that campaign finance reports are.

The two Democratic senators allege that Cushing and Collins were “defrauding taxpayers” by “double dipping” on their state expense reports. It’s a charge the Republicans say are unfounded, and they question the timing of the Democratic criticism, which comes just two weeks before Election Day and is based on documents that have long been on file.

“I am deeply troubled by the accusations that have been leveled towards me and urge the bipartisan committee to review all the facts,” Collins wrote in his request.

Alfond and Patrick said Collins had paid for $2,400 worth of lodging at the Senator Inn in Augusta with funds from his re-election campaign in 2014 but then received a reimbursement as part of his Senate per-diem lodging allowance for the same expense.

The two Democrats said Cushing paid for $1,796 in travel costs with money from his political action committee, Respect Maine, then collected reimbursement for the same travel as part of his legislative service. Cushing has said he made a bookkeeping mistake and is filing an amended report with the Maine Ethics Commission to correct that.

State campaign finance laws allow campaign funds to be spent on legislative expenses provided that “each expenditure is itemized on expenditure reports.” A separate 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.

“I take full responsibility for my actions but don’t feel I have violated any state or legislative rules as to how I have made use of my travel reimbursements,” Cushing wrote to Thibodeau in his request for a meeting of the Senate ethics panel.

Alfond said he believed both Republicans acted knowingly, while Patrick called the reimbursements “total crap.”

Both Collins and Cushing said Monday they had received advice from the Maine Ethics Commission, which enforces campaign finance law, about how to handle their campaign and PAC related expenses.

Jonathan Wayne, the executive director of the commission, said that advice may have been given over the phone two years or more ago. He did confirm that Cushing sought advice on amending his PAC report to accurately reflect how expenditures from it and reimbursements to it were made.

Wayne also confirmed that commission staff do provide candidates for advice regarding both campaign funds and PAC funds.

“The (election law) has fewer restrictions on how PAC funds can be used, and we have in the past advised Legislators that PAC funds can be used to pay for travel and conference registration fees,” Wayne wrote in an email to the Press Herald. “I can say with near certainty that we would not have provided any advice to Senators Collins and Cushing regarding seeking reimbursement from the Legislature for lodging or travel expenses. If such questions did come up, we would have referred them to the Office of the Executive Director of the Legislature.”

Wayne said it was difficult for him to confirm what advice the lawmakers were given without greater detail on what advice was sought and when.

The two Democrats on Monday called for a Senate ethics committee review of the expenditures and reimbursements. But Thibodeau seemed to suggest that he wouldn’t call the committee back to work until after the fall elections, saying if Alfond and Patrick were concerned about the reimbursements, they should have brought it up sooner.

On Tuesday, however, Thibodeau said he had asked the Senate’s ethics committee chairman, Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, to call the committee together as soon as possible.

” It is apparent to me that both of these gentlemen are confident that they have acted in good faith and they both look forward to their opportunity to share their side of the story with the public,” Thibodeau said of Collins and Cushing in a prepared statement.

Collins is a member of the Senate’s Conduct and Ethics Committee, along with Burns and one other Republican, Sen. Brian Langley of Ellsworth. The two other members are Democratic Sens. Anne Haskell of Portland and Linda Valentino of Saco.

In a letter to the Secretary of the Senate, Thibodeau said Tuesday that he is temporarily suspending his appointment of Collins to the committee and will replace, him for the purpose of this meeting, with Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta.

Patrick said he was pleased Thibodeau had agreed to convene the ethics panel to review the matter but both he and Alfond also said Monday that they hadn’t reviewed expense reimbursements for other members of the Senate. Patrick said he was focused on the issue because he has long served on the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction of the state’s Ethics Commission and Maine’s campaign finance laws.

” I look forward to hearing why Sens. Cushing and Collins believe it is ethical to receive personal reimbursements, funded by taxpayers, for bills paid by their campaign donors,” Patrick said in a written statement. “I also look forward to the committee’s recommendations on how to improve the legislative reimbursement system. Mainers must be reassured it won’t be used to line a politicians’ pocket again.”

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.”

But Republicans, including Collins and Thibodeau have questioned the timing of the inquiry, less than two weeks before Election Day. Thibodeau, Collins and Cushing are all seeking reelection, as is Patrick.

 


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