A political action committee controlled by Speaker of the House Sara Gideon will have to pay a $500 penalty for a cash transfer made during the 2016 election cycle that violated state laws.

Gideon admitted to the conduct, which she said resulted from bad advice. She made no attempt to hide the transaction, and the fine she faces is just 10 percent of the maximum available to the state Ethics Commission, reflecting that although she violated the letter of the law, it was a minor infraction.

But it’s big news because Gideon is an announced candidate in the 2020 Democratic primary to challenge Sen. Susan Collins for her seat in the U.S. Senate. Republican operatives are jumping on the the ruling, hoping to tag Gideon with a scandal that would hurt her if she were to become the nominee.

There is a scandal here, but it’s not the one the Republicans are promoting. As in so many campaign finance cases, the conduct that was determined to be out of bounds is mild compared with what is accepted as fair game. The flood of corporate and private wealth used to influence our elections has transformed our politics. Big money gives big donors outsize influence and drowns out the voices of regular people in the halls of government. But it’s all perfectly legal.

With Election Day 2020 more than a year away, Collins and Gideon are already close to beating the fundraising total set by Collins and challenger U.S. Rep. Tom Allen in the 2008 cycle.

And that’s just direct contributions to candidates. It doesn’t take into account the perfectly legal and unlimited election spending by outside “social welfare” groups, which are sometimes funded by the perfectly legal “Super PACs” that can accept unlimited donations from corporations, unions or individual mega-donors.

This kind of spending can eclipse direct spending by campaigns, and has flooded the airwaves with negative messages the candidates would not want to deliver themselves. It’s the direct result of a recent line of Supreme Court decisions, the most famous being “Citizens United vs the FEC,” which asserted that corporate “persons” have 1st Amendment free speech rights, so their spending cannot be limited by law.

Since that decision in 2010, every Maine election has been the most expensive in history, and the trend is sure to continue. With partisan control of the U.S. Senate in the balance, expect to see unprecedented spending levels in Maine, fueled by corporations, national groups and wealthy individuals who don’t really care about the people who live here or our concerns. Reservoirs of cash are already being filled, ready to flood that kind of “free speech” into whichever state has what looks like a close race, drowning out  the people who live there.

In 2016, Gideon used her personal credit card to make two $250 donations on behalf of her PAC to two other PACs, later reimbursing herself. She now knows that she should have made the donations directly from her PAC.

But who is going to be fined for the millions and millions of dollars that will flood the state next year? Why isn’t that a scandal?


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