AUGUSTA — The fundraising committee for Gov. Janet Mills’ inauguration celebration in January still owes the city-owned Augusta Civic Center about $60,000, but a Mills spokesman says the debt will be paid by the end of November.

The total bill for the inauguration was nearly $200,000, and the committee also could face an additional penalty of as much as $5,000 from the Maine Ethics Commission for violating a 2015 law that requires not only the reporting of the committee’s activities but also that its work be completed by the end of the February following the inauguration. Mills is the first governor to take office since the law passed.

Earl Kingsbury, the director of the civic center, said Monday that the committee has continued to make regular payments toward its debt but still owes an estimated $60,000.

Kingsbury said he disagrees with the committee’s previous assertion that the civic center staff underestimated the costs of the celebration during the planning stages by about $64,000.

“That should not have been a surprise,” Kingsbury said of the cost. But he also said he had no issues with the committee, which has been staying in contact with his staff about the debt and making regular payments toward it.

“They are working on it,” Kingsbury said. “They are a good group to work with, and I can’t really ask for anything more.”

He said that no other governor’s inaugural committee that used the Civic Center for the celebration, including former Republican Gov. Paul LePage in 2015, had to carry a debt for the event.

The inauguration held on Jan. 2 was open and free to the public, although those attending were required to get tickets in advance.

Scott Ogden, communications director for Mills, said the committee intends to pay off its debt by the end of November and will file an updated financial report with the ethics commission by Dec. 5.

“Of the original $194,000, the committee has paid off $135,000 and has the remaining amount pledged,” Ogden said in an email Monday. “We look forward to retiring the remaining invoice soon.”

The committee filed its last financial report with the ethics commission at the end of September, showing it had collected another $55,000 and paid out $45,000 to cover expenses, including $25,000 to pay down the debt to the Civic Center.

The donations reported in September included $20,000 from the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, based in Maryland, and $35,000 from the Maine Democratic State Committee.

The report also shows the committee continues to pay for legal work by the Lewiston law firm of Brann & Issacson and for the fundraising work of a York-based consultant, Megan Gean-Gendron.

Three of the four members of the ethics commission have been hesitant to move forward with assessing a penalty against the committee until its debts are satisfied. They put off taking any punitive action against the committee at meetings in July and September and did not include the issue on the agenda for their October meeting last week.

The commission is likely to take the matter up again in December. The date of that meeting has not yet been announced.

According to the ethics commission’s minutes from September, Commissioners William Lee, a Democrat, and Richard Nass, a Republican, both expressed concern that the longer the matter went unresolved the more the committee would spend on consulting and legal fees with funds that could otherwise go to pay down its debt.

The other two commissioners – William Patterson, also a Republican, and Meri Lowry, a Democrat – said they might not be able to decide on how much of a penalty to levy until they knew how long it would take the committee to pay off its debt.

Under the 2015 financial reporting law, the committee was required to stop fundraising by the end of January and disband by the end of February.

Several commissioners have said they believe the law is flawed because it does not allow enough time for a committee to pay its debts before being forced to disband.

Lee said in September that he did not believe there had been any significant harm done to the public – one element the ethics commission considers when assessing a penalty – and that the committee had been transparent in reporting on its fundraising and debts.

Nass expressed concern that the law governing the committee also was “unclear” as to who would actually pay any penalty to the commission for a violation. That was a position agreed to by the ethics commission’s staff attorney, Phyllis Gardiner, the minutes state.

Ogden, the governor’s communications director, noted Monday that the ethics commission has submitted several bills to the Legislature for the 2020 session, including a measure that would revamp the reporting requirements for an inaugural committee.

 

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