A former Republican lawmaker running as a Clean Elections candidate for governor last year directed $100,000 in taxpayer money to a consulting firm that hired him just after he lost the primary election in June.

Former state legislator Garrett Mason’s use of Clean Elections funds exposed a loophole in the system, one lawmakers says. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Former state Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, spent just over $100,000 in taxpayer funds with Eaton River Strategies, a Cumberland firm headed by longtime lobbyist Kathie Summers-Grice. The spending is detailed in financial reports Mason’s campaign filed with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

Mason lost his bid to be the party’s nominee in the mid-June primary to Shawn Moody and joined Summers-Grice at the consulting firm about a month later.

Although the move doesn’t violate any of the state’s campaign finance laws or ethics rules, it raises concerns that Clean Elections funds could be used by candidates for personal financial gain or as a gateway to lucrative employment when they lose an election or leave public office.

Rep. Kent Ackley, an independent from Monmouth, says he plans to submit legislation to close what he sees as a loophole in Maine’s Clean Election Act.

“We don’t need this sort of headache with taxpayers’ money,” Ackley said last week. “When I heard that Sen. Mason had decided to take a partnership with this consulting firm, it was kind of a surprise.”

Mason said he played by the rules and did nothing illegal or unethical.

“Just to be clear, I wasn’t employed by the firm during the campaign,” Mason said. “I didn’t break any rules and I didn’t break any laws.”

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the ethics commission, confirmed that there were no prohibitions against Mason’s action.

But for Ackley the simple appearance of a conflict of interest involving public funds makes it necessary to tighten the laws around Clean Elections funds.

“So we (as a Legislature) have got to own up to it and close the door,” he said.

In the 2018 elections, 206 candidates for the Legislature and three candidates for governor, including Mason, qualified for the Clean Elections program and collected a total of $6.27 million in public financing. It was the third-largest distribution in the history of the program, which began in 2000.

A bill Ackley is proposing for lawmakers to take up in January would ban candidates from taking any job with a company to whom they paid more than $10,000 of Clean Elections funds for three years after the election.

The measure will be among more than 400 possible bills being considered by legislative leaders when they meet next week to decide what gets in and what’s left out as they head into the 2020 lawmaking session, which starts in January.

Mason has long been an opponent of Maine’s Clean Election Act and the use of taxpayer funds for elections.

He said he made a strategic decision to use Clean Elections funds because he believed it was the only way he could be competitive in the race against Moody, a largely self-financed candidate who had millions of dollars at his disposal.

“I knew what I was up against and there was no other way for me to get my message out and present my vision for the way I thought Maine should go over the next four years,” Mason said. “We did what we did. I’m not going to go into an election contest or any other contest with one hand tied behind my back.”

He said he still remained fundamentally opposed to taxpayer-financed political campaigns and would again fight against it if he were still in the Legislature.

“I’ve fought it, but the people have said yes to it three times,” Mason said. “The Democrats won, they got their way. They got to have Clean Elections. You can’t just say, ‘Well you didn’t like Clean Elections so you shouldn’t be able to use it.’ That’s not the way that it works.”

Mason collected $700,000 in public campaign funds and raised an additional $36,000 in qualifying matching funds and small donor contributions. He paid about $101,000 to Eaton River.

Summers-Grice, Eaton River’s president, said only 5 to 6 percent of the funds Mason paid her firm ended up in its bank account. The rest was used to pay other vendors for a variety of goods and services such as postage, direct mailings and printing, she said. Summers-Grice said she has long worked with Mason as a candidate and would have hired him whether or not his campaign had spent money with her company.

“I can say that unequivocally,” she said. Summers-Grice said Mason’s previous, privately financed campaigns had contracted with her firm for mailing services, and that she and he had a long-standing friendship.

“We have always believed that Garrett brings such a myriad of skills that we believe meshed very well with our company,” Summers-Grice said. “This really had nothing to do with it.”

Eaton River has since merged with another political consulting firm, she added, and while Mason still appears as a partner on Eaton River’s website he doesn’t technically work for the firm any longer.

“Eaton River doesn’t really exist anymore,” Summers-Grice said.

Anna Kellar, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, an advocacy group that promotes publicly financed election reforms, said she was not familiar with Ackley’s proposed legislation, but any situation that made Maine’s law look vulnerable to abuse was troubling.

“We want to avoid corruption or conflicts of interests, and the appearance of a conflict of interest can be just as damaging as a real conflict of interest,” Kellar said. She said it was unclear whether her group will back Ackley’s bill, because the group is wary of putting restrictions on Clean Elections funds that are not in place for privately financed campaigns.

“If I was a private donor that watched my money being spent in a way that seemed like it wasn’t necessarily the most effective way to win a campaign but was being used to further the candidate’s personal interests, I think I would be pretty mad in that case, too,” Kellar said.

She said her group might suggest expanding Ackley’s proposal so it would also apply to privately funded campaigns but acknowledged that could raise constitutional issues around free speech and the right to free association.

Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, who co-chairs the Democracy Reform Caucus with Ackley in the Legislature, said he also believes any new restrictions on Clean Elections candidates should probably be applied also to privately financed campaigns.

Chenette ushered through a series of campaign finance and ethics reforms this year, including a new measure that prohibits lawmakers who leave the Legislature from doing any lobbying for a year after they depart. Previously, lawmakers could spend up to eight hours a month lobbying, but there was no mechanism in place to police that, Chenette said.

Also pending is a bill on the desk of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills that would prohibit lawmakers from taking any campaign donations from lobbyists who are registered with the state ethics commission to do work at the State House.

Chenette said if Ackley’s bill is not approved for introduction in January by legislative leaders next week, it will likely come up again in 2021.

“We are not faulting any one individual for participating in the system,” Chenette said. “We are faulting the system for being broken.”


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