The Maine Legislature should revive and pass legislation that would ban any Political Action Committee from paying legislators and their relatives for activities and purchases on behalf of the PAC. And this time, Governor Paul LePage should sign the legislation into law.
A recent investigation by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting centered on a PAC established and controlled by Rep. Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat, that paid her almost 20 percent of its total expenditures for “online organizing” and spent less than four percent to support candidates, as such PACs are organized to do.
But the report also looked at other so-called “leadership” PACS. While in several instances, the leaders involved used the funds for their intended purposes, a few others apparently were used by legislators in part to feather their own nests. One created by former state Sen. John Tuttle, a York County Democrat, saw 55 percent of the $31,179 spent go to Tuttle and other family members for personal expenses. Another, created by former Sen. Cynthia Dill, a Cumberland County Democrat, used $4,000 to pay the senator herself to write a blog. In none of the instances did the legislators involved do anything illegal.
While “leadership” PACS ostensibly are created to help support candidates in their bids to win legislative seats, there are no rules against those legislative leaders using PAC money to pay themselves, according to Jonathan Wayne, executive director of Maine’s Commission on Governmental Ethics and Elections.
In Russell’s case, the $7,747 spent by her “Working Families PAC” went mostly to pay her travel, food, fundraising, office and other expenses while she worked to create what she called “a progressive power machine.” When asked by the Center for Public Interest Reporting how the PAC’s spending fulfilled its stated mission of helping Democrats win seats in the Maine House, Russell expressed surprise: “Oh, is that the mission statement of the PAC? I haven’t changed it?”
The lack of firm rules regulating the use of leadership PAC money opens the door for legislators to use the funds for personal gain, should they choose to do so. The most obvious donors to such PACS are lobbyists and others concerned about influencing legislation, either directly or indirectly by supplying legislative leaders with funds to help others get elected. That process, in turn, enables influential legislators to only further enhance their power.
Further, under Maine’s lax transparency rules, reports regarding donations and spending can be delayed beyond established deadlines with no public knowledge, drawing only the imposition of a quiet, modest fine on the violator. Russell’s PAC reports were late or incomplete in three instances during 2015, resulting in fines totaling a little more than $4,000.
The Commission on Ethics and Elections Practices was sufficiently concerned about the practice of a PAC paying its organizer for work or personal expenses that it sent proposed legislation to lawmakers last year seeking to tighten up the regulations. That bill, LD 1123, included a provision that “if a legislator is a principal officer or treasurer of a political action committee or is one of the individuals primarily responsible for raising contributions or making decisions for the political action committee, the committee may not compensate the Legislator or a member of the legislator’s immediate family or household for services provided to the committee.” The Legislature passed the bill with strong bipartisan support, but the Republican majority refused to override the Governor’s veto. In his veto message, LePage made no reference at all to the PAC provision, claiming that the legislation provided “merely form-over-substances changes.”
We share Ethics Commission Director Wayne’s view that the practice of a leadership PAC paying its organizer “can concern the public,” and so it should.
Legislation to correct what is a glaring deficiency in Maine’s campaign finance laws also should include a provision allowing Political Action Committees to be organized only by political parties or interest groups, and not by individuals. That would eliminate any opportunity for a legislator to justify the use of political contributions for personal or family expenses.