On Monday the Maine U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that Michael Liberty, a real estate and finance magnate who was until recently based in Gray, had pleaded guilty to making illegal federal campaign contributions. According to the release, Liberty made contributions totaling $22,250 in the names of nine “employees, associates and family members” to a primary presidential campaign in 2011. Subsequent reporting has shown that the beneficiary of the contributions was Republican Mitt Romney.
This case, investigated by the FBI, was limited to federal violations, but searches of public records show that a similar pattern of political giving by individuals and companies linked to Liberty is also evident at the state level.
On two days in October, 2010, at least 23 Liberty family members, associates and related corporations all gave maximum contributions to the campaign of then-Republican gubernatorial candidate and now-governor Paul LePage. Eight of these individuals also gave contributions to Romney during the period investigated by the Justice Department.
Of the 23 contributors with the strongest links to Liberty, at least seven are family members. Most of the others are current or former employees of Liberty’s companies and their relatives. Mozido Investments, Xanadu Partners, and American Housing Preservation Corporation, all entities that are at least partially controlled by Liberty also gave maximum contributions on those dates. These donations add up to $17,250, or about 2.3% of the total cash contributions raised by LePage’s campaign.
In addition to the 23 donors that public records and online searches indicate have direct links to Liberty, there are several others who gave the same amount on the same dates and have more tenuous ties, including the owners of a hunting lodge that social media indicates is frequented by Liberty’s family.
It’s possible that all these people and corporations decided to give their own money to LePage and chose to do so through a third party (perhaps Liberty) who delivered their contributions to the campaign. This is called bundling and is legal under Maine law. However, the fact that some of these contributors were also apparently involved in Liberty’s fraudulent federal contributions scheme just seven months later could be an indication that something more nefarious occurred.
The locations, ages, occupations and contribution histories of some of the donors also raise questions. Professions listed include student, homemaker, musician, pilot and chef. Several didn’t live in Maine and most were giving for the first time and don’t have obvious ties to LePage or the Republican Party. It would be quite the coincidence for all of them to suddenly decide to give the maximum of $750.
When asked about the pattern of contributions, Maine Ethics Commission executive director Jonathan Wayne said that his office has not received a complaint about these donors and hasn’t begun an investigation into state-level giving linked to Liberty. He noted that if similar practices to those for which Liberty were prosecuted federally were found in a Maine race, they would violate state laws prohibiting contributions in excess of campaign finance limitations and against making contributions in the names of others. If a campaign knowingly received such contributions, they would also be in violation of the law.
Wayne said that while “straw contributions” have been a problem on the federal level, he couldn’t recall a similar case in Maine.
Unlike the federal charge to which Liberty pleaded guilty (a felony with a penalty of up to two years in prison), Maine campaign finance laws assess only fines of up to the value of the excess contribution for violating donation limits and a $5,000 penalty for making a contribution in someone else’s name.
Liberty has a long and colorful history in public and political life in Maine and across the country, including plenty of time spent in courtrooms and a recent string of run-ins with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In court filings earlier this month, the SEC asserted that Liberty has avoided paying a multi-million dollar settlement by hiding money in companies that he controls, allowing him to lead an extravagant lifestyle while claiming to be in deep personal debt.
Liberty is currently the majority shareholder in Mizodo, a mobile payments company apparently kept afloat mostly by Liberty’s own buoyant personality and an ocean of investment cash. This Forbes profile from July on Liberty’s latest and largest venture is a fascinating read.
Liberty has given mainly to Republican candidates and causes in recent years, including becoming a major backer of the Maine Republican Party, but he has also supported many Democrats over the past few decades. His contributions last made news in 2014 when he spent $100,000 bankrolling a PAC for Cumberland County Sheriff candidate Michael Edes, turning what’s usually a relatively sleepy local race into an expensive and ultimately vicious political contest.