Political action committees, or PACs, are a go-to mechanism to gain influence over our political system. Unlike individual campaigns which have set contribution limits, PACs can funnel unlimited amounts of money from special interests, corporations, and lobbyist contributions. PACs are so popular, that many of my colleagues, fellow state legislators, operate them. While I have long fought to ban legislator-led PACs entirely, I’ve had some success at the State House to at least tighten the rules in how PACs are used.

An investigation by the Maine Ethics Commission found that in a prior election cycle, a legislator used his PAC to pay his family business $11,000. The legislator himself said he transferred these funds as a “loan” to keep the business afloat, essentially profiting off political contributions.

The worst part is: None of this was deemed illegal or in violation of campaign finance rules.

Keep in mind this was a member of legislative leadership who had spent decades in politics. This individual ended up stepping down from his leadership role and racked up thousands of dollars in fines not for the action itself, but for simply not disclosing the activity. Rules governing PACs in Maine were so lax that nothing prevented one lawmaker from using our campaign finance system as his own personal lending agency.

I use this recent example to illustrate the problem, but honestly there are many more examples that were probably never investigated or reported. It also should be noted that this issue doesn’t belong to one party over another.

No candidate or elected official should be profiting off our political system, specifically profiting off political constitutions from lobbyists, special interest groups, and the very corporate entities we are supposed to be regulating.

When a legislator can operate a PAC and can funnel unlimited amounts of contributions from it to a private business operation, it represents a major conflict of interest situation. It’s a very slippery slope when you allow legislators to fund their private business operations with political contributions that were marked for political purposes only. At some point, those donors will call in their chips and you won’t have much choice because of the undue pressure of needing those contributions.

In past sessions, we made it illegal for PACs or campaigns to pay lawmakers directly, but politicians were getting around this rule by simply writing checks to businesses they control as a loan — and many of those businesses were simply pass-throughs to their own bank accounts.

In light of this recent ethics scandal, I knew I needed to strengthen the law and make clear that no legislator or legislative candidate should be using a PAC as a personal or business slush fund. As part of my comprehensive 3-part ethics reform package, I introduced LD 256, “An Act To Ban the Use of Leadership Political Action Committees for Personal Profit.”

The bill closes a major campaign finance loophole by making it illegal to use a PAC for personal profit. Politicians who collect checks from lobbyists shouldn’t be allowed to turn around and write checks to themselves through their businesses.

Specifically, this would prohibit a political action committee from making loans or gifts to a business owned or operated by a legislator and prohibits commingling the funds of such a political action committee with the personal funds of a legislator or the funds of a legislator owned business.

My bill passed the House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously. How often does that happen? Every single Democrat, Republican, and Independent spoke loud and clear that closing this campaign finance loophole is the right thing to do. The governor has signed the measure into law.

The public looked to us to prevent situations like the one that occurred recently from happening again. They wanted reassurance that we were going to address this and not simply sweep it under the rug or turn a blind eye to unethical activity.

Mainers deserve a political system that benefits the public good rather than coating the lines of insiders’ pockets.

Justin Chenette is serving his second term in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He is the chair of the Government Oversight Committee, co-chair of the Democracy Reform Caucus, a member of the Environment and Natural Resources and Ethics Committees, and serves on the Maine Climate Council’s Coastal & Marine Working Group. He is also a Citizen Trade Policy Commissioner. Outside the Legislature, Justin is in real estate at the Bean Group, marketing coordinator of Saco Sport & Fitness, owner of Chenette Media LLC, and is vice president of Saco Main Street. Follow updates at justinchenette.com.

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