The state ethics commission approved a $672.80 fine against a conservative organization on Wednesday for a controversial mailer that suggested a former Democratic leader supported harboring illegal immigrants and terrorists in the state.

The New England Opportunity Project was assessed the penalty for filing a late financial disclosure for spending on a mailer described by the organization’s founder, Republican Rep. Lawrence Lockman of Amherst, as a fundraising letter but that clearly targeted former House Majority Leader Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan. The commission determined the expenditure should have been reported within 48 hours. Lockman’s nonprofit filed the report eight days late after being notified by commission staff.

The mailer was sent in the final weeks of McCabe’s heated but unsuccessful campaign for a Maine Senate seat, prompting one commissioner to call the penalty “a bargain” considering the potential impact on McCabe.

“This is a minor fine compared to the result,” said Commissioner Richard Nass, a former Republican lawmaker from Acton.

Democratic leaders denounced the mailing as false and misleading, with McCabe calling it “absurd” that he would support in any way terrorists living in Maine. McCabe’s Republican opponent during the campaign, Sen. Rodney Whittemore of Skowhegan, said at the time he had no connection to it.

The mailer was sent to residents in the Skowhegan area and features an unflattering picture of the heavily bearded lawmaker over the statement: “Should Maine taxpayers continue to give welfare benefits to Islamic State terrorists living in Maine? Ask Jeff McCabe!” That line appears to be a reference to an Iranian refugee who became radicalized after moving to Freeport and later died fighting for the Islamic State overseas. The man reportedly received welfare benefits while living in Maine.

The accompany letter calls Portland a “harboring haven for illegals” and attacked McCabe for blocking a bill introduced by Gov. Paul LePage and sponsored by Lockman to deny state funding to communities that prohibit police from asking about a person’s immigration status.

Maine campaign finance rules require disclosure of any “independent expenditure” by a party, a political action committee or other organizations that clearly depicts a specific candidate between Labor Day and the November elections. Lockman argued in an October 21 letter to the ethics commission that mailing was a fundraiser for New England Opportunity Project and noted that while it urged residents to contact McCabe on the issues raised, it was not intended to influence McCabe’s campaign.

Commissioner William Lee of Waterville, however, said the fact that McCabe was mentioned 16 times in the mailing made it impossible for him not to conclude that the purpose was to influence the campaign.

On Thursday, Lockman accepted responsibility for failing to disclose the “independent expenditure” within 48 hours, as required.

“My argument is there was no attempt at subterfuge or to hide this,” Lockman said. “It did generate publicity and Representative McCabe did have an opportunity to address the matter.”

Lockman is one of the Legislature’s most conservative members and is well known for his willingness to engage liberals in heated debates, whether on the House floor or on social media. His tactics and fiery rhetoric – including some past comments on abortion and rape, for which he has apologized – have made him a frequent target of criticism from progressives.

McCabe shot back Thursday by accusing Lockman of employing “hateful tactics” and said he hopes the ethics commission explores the donors behind the campaign mailings.

“Ethics has a responsibility to look into this further,” McCabe said.

The commission briefly discussed donors on Thursday, but because New England Opportunity Project is registered as a 501(c)(4) “social welfare organization” nonprofit, it is not required to disclose donors.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 11:15 a.m. on Dec. 9, 2016, to correct that Rep. Lawrence Lockman’s nonprofit was fined for failing to disclose the expenditure within 48 hours. The organization filed the disclosure report eight days after the expiration of the 48-hour deadline.

 


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