The Maine Ethics Commission voted Wednesday to fine a group that supported Democratic state legislative candidates nearly $11,000 for failing to disclose its top donors and for filing a late report.

Commission members and staff said they hoped the substantial fine would send a message to other outside groups looking to influence Maine campaigns.

“This is an egregious violation,” said Commissioner Stacey Neumann, a Scarborough Democrat.

The commission determined last month that American Leadership Committee-Maine violated campaign finance laws by sending mailers and running digital advertisements without disclosing the group’s top three donors. Members deferred enforcement actions until this week.

The political action committee is funded entirely by the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. That group’s top three funders during the fall campaign were the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Emerging American Majorities; and the American Federation of Teachers.

But rather than list that information, the committee stated there were “no top donors.” The group spent about $346,000 on mailings without appropriate disclosures in at least 25 races.


An attorney representing the group, Jonathan Berkon, explained that was because the committee was funded from a special account of small-dollar donors, all of whom gave less than the $1,000 that would have required disclosure.

On Wednesday, Berkon said the national committee will reexamine its financial disclosure practices, which are standard throughout the U.S. and not unique to Maine, in light of the commission’s decision. He asked for leniency on the fine, noting that corrective action had been taken, including having to discard about $23,000 worth of mailers that didn’t have the right disclosure.

“This has been a significant event for the organization in terms of both the costs and in terms of reputation standpoint,” Berkon said. “We take a lot of pride in our compliance obligations.”

He said ethics commission staff had valid criticisms that the group’s original disclosure was risky and invited negative attention.

“Those are fair criticisms and ones we will incorporate in the future not only in this state but frankly across the country,” he said.

Commissioners followed staff’s recommendation and unanimously voted for a $10,000 fine for violating the disclosure law and another $680 for filing a late report, citing the size and sophistication of the group.


“To me clearly (they) didn’t take into account the absolute core of what we’re all about – which is disclosure of sources for funded activity,” said Commissioner Dennis Marble, a Hampden independent. “I think putting out hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of print and digital materials saying no top donors screams against the intent of everything we’re about.”

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the commission, said after the meeting that fines in excess of $10,000 or more are uncommon, but not unprecedented.

In 2015, the Massachusetts-based Proteus Action League, which was supporting campaign finance reforms here, was fined $15,000 for not reporting two funding transfers totaling roughly $255,000 from its parent organization. The National Organization for Marriage was fined $50,250 in 2014 for violations in its 2009 campaign against same-sex marriage and the Maine Republican State Leadership Committee was fined $26,000 in 2011.

The ethics panel’s largest fine came in 2017, when Horse Racing Jobs was fined $500,000 for various violations associated with its campaign to allow slot machines or a casino in York County. And Mainers for Local Power was fined  $35,000 in February for late filing of reports.

The commission also reviewed a slate of proposed campaign finance changes that will be submitted to the incoming Legislature.

One of the proposed changes is adding new rules around text messaging to voters. The proposed rule states that text messages sent by mass distribution technology costing more than $100 must “clearly and conspicuously state” the name of the person who made or financed the expenditure if the text explicitly advocates for the election or defeat of a candidate or contains a link to a website doing the same.


Wayne declined to say whether any of the proposed rules stemmed from specific incidents during the fall election. Instead, he said commission staff have been fielding an increased number of inquiries about reporting requirements for text messaging, which is becoming more important for campaigns.

The proposal regarding text messages comes after the American Principles Project, a national conservative group, conducted a message-testing poll last summer using text messages linking to a poll it said was being done by Maine Today. Some voters who received the text believed it was from MaineToday Media, which owns the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta and Morning Sentinel in Waterville. The poll linked to a YouTube page containing ads attacking Democratic incumbent Gov. Janet Mills over her LGBTQ and immigration policies.

Later, the group formed the Maine Families First PAC, which used text messages to circulate a last-minute ad attacking Mills on LGBTQ issues.

Commissioners also voted Wednesday to suspend an unrelated investigation into Maine Families First, which had been accused of not filing timely campaign finance reports. The PAC was funded exclusively by conservative megadonor Thomas Klingenstein, who donated nearly $2.9 million to the failed effort to topple Mills.

A complaint alleged that the PAC did not file timely disclosures, but staff and commissioners determined there was not enough evidence to rule against it and that Klingenstein was identified in ads and in media accounts as the sole funder of the group.

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