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AUGUSTA — The state agency that tracks compliance with campaign-finance laws is adding staff to improve its oversight of candidates' spending reports. The move reflects the fact that more candidates are using tax dollars to run their campaigns and acknowledges problems that became apparent during a 2004 campaign scandal.
A recently hired full-time auditor and a seasonal assistant whose job will lapse after the election will routinely review all finance reports. They also will take closer looks at selected filings to increase the likelihood of detecting innocent mistakes and deliberate abuse.
The detailed audits, which will involve publicly funded gubernatorial and legislative candidates, are designed to ensure that money from the taxpayer-funded Clean Election Act is being used properly.
"We've got to safeguard the assets of both the state and the taxpayers," said Vincent Dinan, a one-time auditor for the U.S. General Accounting Office who joined the staff of the state Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices as its auditor in March.
Dinan said Wednesday he and associate auditor Anissa Boisvert are gearing up to closely monitor how all publicly funded gubernatorial candidates and "a statistical random sample" of taxpayer-financed legislative candidates spend the money they are getting this year from the state's Clean Election Fund.
The ethics commission also is assigning more staffers to give a once-over to all finance reports, said Jonathan Wayne, the commission's executive director. But the big difference this time around is that Dinan and Boisvert will also ask candidates to provide "underlying documentation," such as receipts, to justify the expenditures, he said.
Dinan replaced another auditor who had worked for the commission, but Boisvert's seasonal job is new, giving the commission more auditing resources than it had before. The combined salaries of Dinan and Boisvert total about $67,000. The commission has enough money in its budget to pay both without requesting more from the Legislature.
The crackdown follows the ethics commission's decision in January to fine two legislative candidates and two political consultants more than $45,000 for misusing the Clean Election Act in 2004.
Fourth Branch Party candidate Julia St. James of Hartford and Green Independent Sarah Trundy of Minot waged unsuccessful campaigns for the Legislature that year with the help of consultants Daniel Rogers of Auburn and Jessica Larlee of Minot. St. James, who ran in Senate District 14, and Trundy, who ran in House District 96, also were ordered to repay more than $14,000 to the Clean Election Fund.
The ethics commission turned the case over to the attorney general in April because the fines had not been paid and the repayments had not been made. The commission has yet to receive any of that money, according to Paul Lavin, the agency's assistant director.
More recently, a York County grand jury indicted Republican Peter Throumoulos of Old Orchard Beach on June 6 for allegedly stealing Clean Election Act money in 2004 and for trying to do so again in a failed primary bid for the state Senate this year.
Those charges involve possibly forged signatures of supposed supporters, including the signatures of two deceased men, that Throumoulos allegedly submitted to Saco officials on April 13 as part of his unsuccessful quest for public financing this year. Throumoulos lost the June 13 GOP primary in Senate District 5 to Charity Kewish of Saco.
The heightened scrutiny by state auditors also comes at a time when the Clean Election Act continues to grow in popularity. The number of legislative candidates relying on public financing has jumped from 33 percent of the total in 2000, when the voter-approved law first became effective in legislative races, to 77 percent of all legislative candidates in the upcoming election.
Only one general-election gubernatorial candidate used public financing in 2002, when Clean Election Act money became available in the governor's race, but three have qualified this time around and a fourth is still trying to do so.
All told, Wayne estimates that publicly funded candidates for governor and the Legislature will spend a combined $9 million this election year.
Wayne emphasized Wednesday that very few publicly financed candidates have abused the system, but said more thorough audits will help the commission catch those who do. He said the change also will help educate taxpayer-funded candidates who do not fully understand the spending and reporting rules.
Eric Johnson of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, a watchdog group that champions the Clean Election Act, welcomed the changes.
"This strikes me as an example of the kinds of things that need to be done to keep the system working smoothly," he said.