Mayor Ethan Strimling’s campaign has filed a formal complaint with the Maine Ethics Commission about a group opposing his re-election, saying Unite Portland failed to file disclosure reports and has continued trying to conceal the identity of its primary consultant.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling campaigns door-to-door last month on Munjoy Hill. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

That consultant is Lance Dutson, a well-known Republican political operative who confirmed to the Press Herald that he is doing campaign work for the group under the banner of a new limited liability company whose only address is a post office box in Scarborough.

Meanwhile, Unite Portland filed its own campaign finance complaint Thursday against Strimling’s campaign, saying it failed to report in-kind contributions from Progressive Portland, a nonprofit that has endorsed the mayor and is helping him raise money and organize his field operations.

The dueling complaints announced Thursday – coupled with the mystery surrounding the PAC’s political consultant – are unusual in a municipal election in Maine and reflect a rising level of political organizing and spending in Portland.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, said the Portland City Clerk’s Office could refer complaints to the ethics commission for enforcement, or seek to address them itself by requesting additional information from the parties involved.

“Our office rarely receives complaints from the city clerks for enforcement,” Wayne said Thursday. “When we do, the staff schedules them for consideration by the commissioners at a public meeting. If the commissioners direct us to investigate the complaint, then we will.”

Portland City Clerk Katherine Jones said in an email that her office was reviewing the complaints. She did not respond to questions about the process moving forward.

Strimling’s campaign manger, Stephanie Clifford, said in a letter to city and state election officials Wednesday that Unite Portland should be fined between $8,600 and $17,200 for failing to file independent expenditure reports. Unite Portland filed a quarterly campaign finance report on Oct. 7 and an amended report Tuesday, but the additional reports are required when $250 or more is spent in support of or in opposition to a candidate between Labor Day and Election Day, she said.

Clifford also accused Unite Portland of having decision-makers who are not listed on the PAC’s registration and should be identified. And she accused the group of “shielding individual sub-vendors and consultants” through the use of a limited liability company.

“We are now less than three weeks away from election day – absentee ballots are out and early voting has begun,” she said. “Unite Portland has flagrantly ignored multiple Maine statutes and Maine Ethics Commission rules. This matter must be referred to the Maine Ethics Commission for immediate investigation and enforcement. Portlanders deserve transparency around PACs trying to influence elections, and Unite Portland must be held accountable.”

Unite Portland has reported nearly $19,000 in funding almost exclusively from a handful of landlords and developers. It filed an amended finance report in response to issues raised by Strimling’s campaign, but did not address the core issues raised by the mayor’s campaign.

The amended report provided more detail about the nearly $15,000 it has paid the TCV Group LLC for campaign work, including $6,000 for video production and website development, $4,000 for consulting, $20 for web domain and $4,665 for Facebook ads.

Former City Councilor Dory Waxman, who is listed as the decision-maker for Unite Portland, has declined to provide more information about the organization and did not return calls or emails to discuss who was behind the TCV Group. However, she issued a written statement in response to Strimling’s complaint that sought to deflect criticism to Progressive Portland.

“Unite Portland has publicly and transparently reported our donors and expenditures,” Waxman said. “By contrast, Progressive Portland is publicly fundraising and organizing for Ethan Strimling while failing to file any finance reports and hiding their donors. This dark money group has no place in Portland politics and Ethan Strimling should publicly disavow their involvement.”

TCV Group is a limited liability company that formed in July – about a month before Unite Portland registered with the city. The only name listed in the certificate of formation is Gregory Dorr, a Bangor attorney who did not respond to voicemails or an email Wednesday seeking additional information. It lists 210 Route 1 #131 in Scarborough as the address for TCV Group, but that is just a post office box at the UPS Store.

Dutson, a veteran Republican campaign consultant whose company, Red Hill Strategies, worked for the successful campaign to defeat a rent control measure in Portland two years ago, said the TCV Group is a new company he created to provide consulting services.

Dutson wouldn’t discuss why he is providing campaign services through a new LLC rather than under the Red Hill banner, or explain the origins of the company’s name or whether anyone else works there. But he said the LLC was “absolutely not” intended to hide his involvement.

“I do a lot of business with a lot of different people,” Dutson said. “The arrangements I have with me and my clients are between me and my clients.”

He added, “I have never seen so much concern over who is shooting videos for a campaign before.”

City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, a real estate attorney, former Portland School Board Chair Kate Snyder and waiter Travis Curran are challenging Strimling for the full-time position that comes with a $73,000 salary and a four-year term, but no executive authority over city operations.

Wayne, director of the ethics commission, said Wednesday that he didn’t see any obvious violations in Unite Portland’s amended quarterly filing.

“On its face, the amended report seems to be mostly compliant,” Wayne said. “If the PAC were reporting directly to our office, we might suggest some minor details be handled differently.”

Wayne said it is unusual for a political consultant to be an LLC that can’t easily be traced to a specific individual or firm because they typically want to advertise their services. He could think of only one other instance when this was an issue at the state level, but he declined to provide details about that other case. PACs typically list the individual vendors who are easily identifiable and are paid to do specific work, he said.

Shortly after Strimling’s campaign announced its complaint Thursday, Unite Portland filed its own complaint against Strimling’s campaign over the involvement of Progressive Portland, which they describe as an “active participant in Portland’s mayoral election.”

Unite Portland said Strimling’s campaign should be reporting contributions from Progressive Portland and its founder and President Steven Biel because they are providing services of value.

Strimling’s campaign has said it is not obligated to include Progressive Portland in its reports because the group has not spent any money on the campaign. Biel has described himself as a volunteer.

But Unite Portland notes that Biel is a professional political consultant who advertises services such as building email lists, “blockbuster online fundraising,” messaging and media strategy, and organizing and user-generated petitions.”

The volunteer provision of campaign finance law does not cover his services, or Progressive Portland’s, they said, so the nonprofit and Strimling’s campaign should be reporting those activities as in-kind donations, which are limited to $850.

“Progressive Portland, while acting as Mr. Strimling’s de facto campaign and fundraising organization, is using their nonprofit status to mask vendor and contributor information that Strimling’s campaign is required by law to report,” the group said.

Biel called the accusation “utterly baseless.” And an attorney representing Strimling’s campaign said the complaint by Unite Portland was a “retaliatory attempt to deflect attention from their own violations of Maine campaign laws.”

Attorney Daniel Walker of the Preti Flaherty law firm said that state law does not count volunteer time or services as contributions.

“At no time was a political contribution, of any kind, made by any individual – in kind or otherwise,” Walker said in a written statement. “Thus, Unite Portland’s allegations demonstrate a lack of understanding of Maine’s campaign laws and our long tradition of encouraging volunteer participation in our democratic process.

“This is, perhaps, not a surprise given Unite Portland’s demonstrated disregard for campaign finance laws and disclosure as outlined in the Strimling campaign’s recent ethics complaints filed against Unite Portland, as recently as yesterday.”

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