AUBURN — An attorney for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections argued Tuesday in Superior Court that Republican Gov. Paul LePage was abridging the free speech rights of legislative candidates by refusing to release $1.4 million in public funds to help bankroll their campaigns.

David Kallin also pointed out to Superior Court Justice William Stokes that only about $100,000 of the funds in question would go to candidates running as members of LePage’s Republican Party, while close to 10 times that amount is owed Democratic and unenrolled candidates.

About 120 candidates are affected by the dispute. Kallin filed suit on behalf of candidates, as well as Maine residents who made $5 donations to the candidates that qualified their campaigns for Clean Election funding.

Kallin argued that the Clean Election fund was unlike other state funds, in that the law that created it spells out specifically when funds are to be released and the amount, provided the fund has a sufficient balance.

Among the affected candidates is Walter Riseman of Harrison, who is running as an unenrolled candidate for House District 69 against Republican Tony Lorraine, who is traditionally financed. The district includes the towns of Harrison, Bridgton and Denmark, and the seat is currently held by Rep. Phyllis Ginzler, R-Bridgton.

Riseman said he is owed $3,700 in Clean Election funding for his campaign, and that without the money he has had to limit his campaign and getting his message out. Riseman also ran in 2016 and lost the race by about 100 votes.

“As an independent, I don’t have the same sort of resources that someone in a party might have,” he said in an interview. “So it’s really important that I gain all the money that I’m owed. That would be very key going into the latter part of the campaign.”

Riseman also said he is reluctant to gather more $5 contributions to qualify for additional matching funds under the law because he doesn’t know what will become of those donations if LePage is allowed to block the funds’ release.

LEPAGE WITHHOLDS HIS SIGNATURE

Peter Strawbridge, an attorney for LePage, argued that Stokes couldn’t find that LePage had committed any civil rights violations, noting that Clean Election candidates had previously received an initial disbursement of funds. At the heart of LePage’s argument is the separation of powers clause in the state’s constitution. Strawbridge has argued that the courts can’t order LePage to sign a financial order without violating that clause.

LePage is withholding his signature from financial orders that would instruct the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices to disburse funds that were left unused or returned by Clean Election candidates after the 2016 elections. LePage has signed off on similar financial orders in the past.

The Clean Election account, which currently holds about $5 million, is made up of money from the state’s General Fund, as well as from the $5 individual contributions made to qualifying candidates, funds from a voluntary state income contribution and money left unused or returned by candidates.

LePage’s decision to withhold his signature on the financial order affects funds that would have been awarded before the fiscal year ended June 30. Clean Election funding for the fiscal year that began July 1 also is unavailable to candidates.

The funding was included in the state’s two-year budget, but a typographical error in the budget bill prevents the ethics commission from allocating the money.

RESTRICTIONS ON CANDIDATES

Linda Sanborn, a former Democratic House member from Gorham, said her campaign for state Senate District 30 is being dramatically held up by LePage’s actions.

Sanborn, like Riseman, was at the hearing Tuesday and said she had no doubt LePage was trying to rig the system in favor of Republican candidates. Sanborn’s campaign should receive about $30,000 under the law, but so far she’s running on a shoestring budget. She said she has delayed video productions meant to promote her candidacy, among other expenditures, not knowing if she will have the money to pay for them.

“And I know my opponent will raise at least the full amount I was budgeting for,” Sanborn said. “It really puts a great restriction on the budget I had planned.”

Maine Political Report



Under state law, if the Clean Election fund runs dry, candidates would be allowed to raise private funds up to the amount of Clean Election funding they would be eligible for, but that’s not the situation, said Kallin, the attorney for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

Phyllis Gardiner, an attorney for the ethics commission, told Stokes that the commission couldn’t give candidates permission to collect private contributions without violating the law. Also at stake in the case are the rights of Maine voters who made $5 contributions for candidates running under the program.

RULING LIKELY TO BE APPEALED

John Brautigam, another attorney for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said candidates like Sanborn were getting only about half of what they were entitled to receive. “So that is very significant. … It is a huge blow,” he said.

Brautigam said some Clean Election candidates were now contemplating dropping out of the race as Election Day grows nearer and no resolution appears imminent. “It’s that bad,” he said.

He stopped short of accusing LePage of using the move to affect the election, but he did say a governor should not be allowed to have such an impact on possible candidates in opposition parties.

“It’s a terrible precedent to say the governor has no restrictions on his or her ability to control the fund in the heat of a campaign,” Brautigam said. “Maybe the governor has the authority to close an airport, but you can’t close an airport when there are airplanes circling above it.”

Stokes, a Democrat and former mayor of Augusta, was nominated to the bench by LePage in 2014. He hopes to issue a ruling next week, but said Tuesday that he expects his decision will likely be appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, the state’s highest court.

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

[email protected]

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