A political action committee controlled by Speaker of the House Sara Gideon will have to pay a $500 penalty for a cash transfer during the 2016 election cycle that violated state laws.

Gideon admitted to the conduct, which she said resulted from bad advice. She made no attempt to conceal her conduct, and the fine she faces is just 10 percent of the maximum available to the state Ethics Commission, reflecting that although she violated the letter of the law, it was a minor infraction.

But it’s big news because Gideon is an announced candidate in the 2020 Democratic primary to challenge Sen. Susan Collins for her seat in the U.S. Senate. Republican operatives are jumping on the the ruling, hoping to tag Gideon with a scandal that would hurt her if she were to become the nominee.

There is a scandal here, but it’s not the one the Republicans are promoting. As in so many campaign finance cases, the conduct that was determined to be out of bounds is mild compared to the flood of corporate and private wealth into elections that has transformed our politics. Big money gives big donors outsize influence and drowns out the interests of regular people, but it’s all perfectly legal.

With Election Day more than a year away, Collins and Gideon are close to beating the record fundraising total set by Collins and challenger U.S. Rep. Tom Allen in the 2008 cycle, the most expensive race in Maine history.

And that’s just counting direct contributions to candidates. It doesn’t take into account the perfectly legal unlimited spending by outside groups, or their funding by the perfectly legal “Super PACS” that receive unlimited donations from corporations, unions or individual mega-donors.

This kind of spending has eclipsed direct spending by campaigns, and has flooded the airwaves with negative messages for which candidates don’t have to take responsibility. It’s the direct result of a line of Supreme Court decisions, the most famous being Citizens United v. the FEC, which asserted that corporate “persons” have 1st Amendment free speech rights, so their spending cannot be limited by law.

Since that decision in 2010, every Maine election has been the most expensive in history, and the trend is sure to continue. With partisan control of the U.S. Senate in the balance, expect to see unprecedented spending levels in Maine, fueled by corporations, national groups and wealthy individuals who don’t really care about the people of Maine or our concerns. Reservoirs of cash are already being filled ready to flood that kind of “free speech” into whichever state has what looks like a close race, drowning out the the voices of the people who live there.

In 2016, Gideon used her personal credit card to make two $250 donations on behalf of her PAC to two other PACs, later reimbursing herself. She now knows that she should have made the donations directly from her PAC.

But who is going to be fined for the millions and millions of dollars that will flood the state next year? Why isn’t that a scandal?

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