Maine Citizens for Clean Elections filed a lawsuit Thursday to force Gov. Paul LePage to release Clean Election funds to about 80 candidates who are eligible for about $1.4 million in public support.

The suit was filed on behalf of Clean Election candidates and citizens who have made $5 donations to the candidates, making them eligible for the campaign funds.

John Brautigam, an attorney for the citizens group, told reporters at a news conference in Augusta that the group filed the suit in Kennebec County Superior Court and asked for a quick response, given the urgency of the matter for candidates and voters. In all, about 200 candidates running for the Legislature or governor are eligible to receive Clean Elections funding.

“We don’t take an action like this lightly,” Brautigam said. “There has been a long course of events that got us to this point. This is not about personalities, it’s not about politics, it’s not about partisanship, it’s about the rule of law and applying the will of the voters in a common-sense way to the situation that is before us.”

The Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices voted unanimously Wednesday to dole out a third of the campaign cash that candidates should be receiving under the Clean Election program, after LePage twice refused to sign financial orders that would authorize the commission to provide full funding to about 80 candidates.

LePage is withholding his signature, which would allow the ethics commission staff to disburse funds that were either left unused or returned by candidates after the 2016 election cycle. LePage has routinely authorized such spending in the past, as have two other governors who served after voters approved the Maine Clean Elections Act in 1996.

“Not one of those governors used Clean Elections as a candidate,” Brautigam said. “But all of them have released the funds, including this incumbent governor, have released the funds by financial order as a way to manage the fund, every one of them have. This is the first time a financial order has not been forthcoming to manage the fund.”

LePage’s spokeswoman, Julie Rabinowitz, said Thursday that on the advice of legal counsel, the governor would not comment on pending litigation.

The candidates have qualified for about $1.4 million to finance their campaigns for the Legislature or governor. But the commission has been alloted only $400,000 to distribute because of a typo in a state budget bill last year. The Legislature has been unable to break a partisan gridlock and fix the error. Conservative opponents of the Clean Election law have said they see the error as an opportunity to weaken, if not dismantle, the Clean Election system in Maine.

As part of Wednesday’s decision, the commission agreed to apportion funding based on the number of private, $5 qualifying contributions that a Clean Election candidate has collected. That will put candidates who have collected the maximum amount of qualifying $5 donations at an advantage over those who have not. But overall, candidates will only be given less than 30 percent of the money they would have received if the commission had access to all the funds it has on hand.

State Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, and his opponent in the race for Senate District 27, Crystal Canney, an independent, are both Clean Election candidates who are among those being represented in the suit.

“We cannot allow one person, the governor, to unilaterally block the funding that has already been approved for this purpose,” Chipman said at the news conference.

Canney said politicians in the Legislature were quick to make the issue a partisan one, but she believed it shouldn’t be one.

“You are watching the rules be changed in the middle of the process,” Canney said. “This is politics at its worst and there has been plenty of that during this last legislative session. How about we just put the people first?”

Tim Feeley, spokesman for Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, who is the Democratic Party’s nominee in the 2018 race for governor, said Mills would not be personally involved in any lawsuits dealing with elections or election funds, but that attorneys assigned to the ethics commission would be reviewing the complaint and would “respond appropriately in due course.”

In its complaint to the court, the citizens group names LePage and Alec Porteous, the commissioner of the Department of Administration and Financial Affairs, which would issue the payments to candidates as defendants.

“Defendants’ unlawful refusal to allow the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices (“Ethics Commission”) to make payments required by the (Maine Clean Elections Act) irreparably harms candidate-plaintiffs by stifling their ability to communicate with voters to the full extent provided by law,” the complaint says. “It also harms the public interest by curtailing political speech at the height of an election cycle. Ordering defendants to release funding for its lawful and intended statutory purpose does not create any cognizable hardship.”

Besides Canney and Chipman, other plantiffs in the case include state Sen. Thomas Saviello, a Wilton Republican. According to the complaint, Saviello contributed a $5 matching donation to state Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton, who is currently running to replace Saviello in the state Senate. Saviello is unable to run for re-election because of term limits.

But the appearance of Saviello in the case highlights the impact on candidates from both major parties as well as independents. As a supporter of Black, “Saviello … has an interest in the ability of Russell Black to run an effective campaign and to fully express his views to the broader public,” the complaint says.

Dr. Linda Sanborn, a Democratic state representative from Gorham who is running as a Clean Elections candidate for the state Senate against incumbent Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, is also named as a plaintiff in the case against LePage and Porteous.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: thisdog

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian

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