Portland primary spending raises campaign finance concerns

A meeting of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices yesterday did not result in any sanction or finding of wrongdoing against Democratic state senate candidate (and current state representative) Ben Chipman, who is running in a contested primary in Portland. The proceedings did, however, highlight a potential loophole in Maine campaign finance laws.

The discussion of spending in the District 27 race was prompted by a complaint filed by Steven Biel, a campaign volunteer for Rep. Diane Russell, one of Chipman’s opponents in the race, (although he says it was not submitted on behalf of her campaign). Biel alleged that Chipman was abusing the so-called “house party exemption” in Maine’s Clean Elections Act, meant to allow volunteers to pay for incidental expenses like food and invitations, by bundling together off-the-books funds and spending them on political advertising.

(Biel is also a columnist for the Bangor Daily News)

The complaint included a professionally-produced mailer sent to households in the district with “Chipman for Senate” branding but no campaign finance disclosure language as evidence of a violation of elections law.

Chipman’s campaign characterized the complaint as a politically-motivated attack and noted that they had checked with staff at the Ethics Commission before sending the mailer.

“I don’t see anything in the invitation that should cause a problem,” reads an email that Chipman received from Paul Lavin, a staffer at the commission, earlier this month, although Commission executive director Jonathan Wayne made clear in a written submission that “Chipman did not specify the number of volunteers, the cost of the invitations, or the number of invitations that would be mailed.”

Chipman also noted that other campaigns have undertaken similar mailings without issue.

In total, the volunteer hosts of the house parties advertised in the mailer spent $1,828.76 and reached 5,260 District households, according to Chipman. That degree of extra spending may not make much difference in a general election race, where state senate candidates can already qualify for up to $40,000 in additional public financing through the collection of $5 qualifying contributions (and which would likely be a better use of their time than bundling house party money) but its influence could be felt to a significant degree in a primary like the one in question, where MCEA candidates are limited to to a one-time disbursement of $10,000.

“Regardless of what the Commission decides on this agenda item, we are now concerned that the house party exemption has expanded beyond its original intent – which we heartily endorse – to the point that campaigns can use it to legally evade other limitations in campaign finance law,” wrote Maine Citizens for Clean Elections executive director Andy Bossie in a letter to the Commission.

The commissioners apparently agreed that, while Chipman’s tactics may not be a violation of the law as currently understood, they do raise concerns. While they didn’t penalize him or launch an investigation, a motion to find him in full compliance with the law also failed, and they then directed Commission staff to craft rules to head off future abuses of the exemption.

For the District 27 race, the unsuccessful complaint means that Chipman will maintain a cleaner nose when it comes to campaign finance ethics than Russell, who has been criticized for missing filing deadlines and for making payments to herself from her leadership PAC.

Voters will decide between Chipman, Russell and Dr. Charles Radis, another candidate in the race, on Tuesday, June 14th.

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike is Maine's longest-writing political blogger and explores state politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center.