Panel likely to support new reforms

Portland Press Herald
Press Clips
Paul Carrier

Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

AUGUSTA -- A key legislative committee is expected to back election reforms designed to avoid a scandal like the one that triggered more than $45,000 in fines this year for abuses of the public Clean Election Fund.

Democrats and Republicans on the committee that oversees election laws said Thursday they support proposals for added oversight, tougher penalties and greater accountability. The reforms were recommended by the staff of the state Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which oversees the taxpayer-financed Clean Election Fund.

Jonathan Wayne, the executive director of the ethics commission, proposed the reforms after the commission fined candidates Julia St. James of Hartford and Sarah Trundy of Minot and consultants Dan Rogers of Auburn and Jessica Larlee of Minot. The four were accused of misusing the Clean Election Fund during St. James' failed 2004 bid for the state Senate and Trundy's unsuccessful run that year for a seat in the state House of Representatives.

The charges against the four people included creating false invoices, failing to account for how they spent public funds and failing to return computers and stamps purchased with tax dollars. The fines that the commission imposed Jan. 5 have not yet been appealed or paid, Wayne said Thursday. He said the commission is expected to ask the Office of the Attorney General to try to collect the penalties.

The reforms "cover just about everything that needs to be covered," said Rep. John Patrick, D-Rumford, who co-chairs the Legislature's Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, which handles election issues. Republican Sen. Debra Plowman of Hampden, a member of that committee, agreed, saying the reforms would help fight any future "scheming" to misuse public funds.

The proposed changes in state law call for the ethics commission to take on another employee from May 1 through Jan. 31. That would help the agency keep track of the projected $8 million in public funds that gubernatorial and legislative candidates are expected to spend on this year's campaigns.

That temporary expansion of the staff would cost $52,666 in salary and benefits, but it would not require new funding. The ethics commission would transfer the money from one Clean Election Fund account to another if the Legislature authorizes the switch, Wayne said.

The plan also asks the Legislature to authorize a penalty of up to $5,000 when a candidate or campaign operative tries to mislead voters about who is responsible for a mailing. The ethics commission considered imposing a $5,000 fine against Rogers for distributing a phony mailing in Biddeford in 2004 but settled on a $200 fine instead, after deciding that current law may not allow the larger penalty.

That aspect of the case did not involve public funds. It centered on a mailing by Rogers of 50 oversized postcards to Biddeford voters. The mailing claimed that Democrat Stephen Beaudette of Biddeford, then a candidate for the District 136 seat in the House, had been endorsed by the non-existent Coalition for Homosexual Marriage in Maine. Beaudette went on to win the election.

Other changes proposed by the staff of the ethics commission would clarify that campaign treasurers and consultants, not just the candidates themselves, must spend all of the money they get from the Clean Election Fund on campaign activities.

The changes would authorize the ethics commission to recover public funds from campaign workers who misspend them, not just from candidates. The law currently does not allow the commission to recover misused funds from campaign staff, though the ethics commission can fine staff members.

In its Jan. 5 ruling, the ethics commission fined Rogers $17,500 for submitting false invoices and accepting public funds for non-campaign purpose while working for St. James; it fined Larlee $15,500 for misusing public funds while working for Trundy. St. James and Trundy also were fined, and the two candidates were ordered to return public funds that had been misused.

Wayne also is asking for measures to promote more accountability. Under his plan, the Legislature would require campaigns to deposit all of the money they get from the Clean Election Fund into bank accounts.

Publicly funded candidates would have to keep bank statements for two years after they file their last finance reports.

keep an invoice for each campaign expense of $50 or more and keep proof of payment to vendors.