The Maine Ethics Commission fined the inaugural committee of Gov. Janet Mills $2,000 Wednesday under a new law requiring disclosure of inaugural committee finances.

Mills’ committee was fined for continuing to collect donations 10 months past the legal deadline for doing so. But commissioners also criticized the new law, passed by a ballot initiative, for its tight deadline.

In other matters, the commission approved a $2,000 late-filing fine against Unite Portland, a political action committee that worked to defeat the re-election bid of former Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling in November. The commission also was told that Betsy Sweet, a 2018 gubernatorial candidate now running in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary, has agreed to repay about $8,000 in Clean Elections Act funds that the commission’s staff said were improperly spent during her Blaine House campaign last year.

The new law on inaugural committee fundraising under which Mills was penalized requires committees to finish their work by Jan. 31 and file final finance reports no later than Feb. 15.  A bill to change those requirements is expected to be heard during the upcoming session of the Legislature, set to start in January.

The inaugural committee continued to collect donations because it was unable to cover its expenses for the January celebration, including to the city of Augusta for its use of the Augusta Civic Center.

The committee paid off its more than $60,000 debt to the Civic Center on Dec. 2, following a $43,000 donation on Nov. 26 from financier and philanthropist S. Donald Sussman, a frequent contributor to Maine Democratic candidates and progressive groups. Jay Cashman, a Boston construction mogul, also donated $10,000 to the committee on Nov. 27.

The committee found itself in debt after it was billed $62,902 more than the $132,000 the city quoted for food, services and use of the Civic Center. Michael Carey, an attorney for the inaugural committee, agreed the committee had missed the deadline in law for wrapping up its activities, but also noted there was little harm done to the public and no deception involved around how funds were raised or spent on the celebration. He suggested the commission only fine the committee $750.

In November, officials at the Civic Center said the inaugural committee had been making regular payments on its debt and was in regular communication with them about the matter although it still owed about $61,000 to the city at that time.

Carey also said the committee received one more bill on Tuesday for $2,198.60 from a company that took down the stage following the inauguration. In a letter to the commission, Carey said after that bill was paid the committee would have $4,419.98 on hand, which would cover the penalty from the commission. The committee’s remaining cash balance would be donated to a Maine nonprofit that helps survivors of domestic violence, he said. The law allows the committee’s balance to be given to the state, returned to the donors or donated to any Maine-based nonprofit.

Commission Chairman William Lee III said the panel was not levying the maximum fine of $10,000 largely because the inaugural committee had been transparent about its finances as soon as the members realized they were in debt and would need to continue fundraising. Lee also noted the commission’s concern that the deadlines in the ballot-box law did not allow adequate time for an inaugural committee to raise funds and pay all of its bills, some of which were likely to come in after the deadlines set in law.

The ethics commission was prepared to vote Wednesday on a request from Sweet, a longtime progressive activist and lobbyist, that she not be required to pay back about $8,000 in taxpayer funds she paid herself from Clean Elections funds at the end of her campaign. The payments were for campaign-related expenses for travel, rent for office space, phone and utilities at her home.

An attorney for Sweet’s campaign told the commission that Sweet would withdraw her request for a waiver and repay the funds. Sweet is among four Democrats vying for the party’s nomination to run against incumbent Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, in 2020.

In an unusual move, the commission voted 4-0 to fine Unite Portland, the PAC formed to oppose the re-election of Strimling, the Portland mayor who lost his re-election bid in November.  The commission seldom considers issues in municipal elections, although it is authorized to do so under state laws that apply to voting in cities or towns with more than 15,000 residents.

Jonathan Wayne, the commission’s executive director, said after the meeting that staff had been able to find only one other case of penalties against a PAC in a municipal election. He said that occurred when Scarborough Village Partnership, formed in 2009 to promote slot machines in Scarborough, was fined $12,250 for missing filing deadlines for PAC registration and campaign finance reports.

Strimling’s campaign filed a complaint with Portland’s city clerk after Unite Portland failed to file reports of its independent expenditures. The PAC spent just over $10,000 on video production and Facebook advertising in the weeks before the election but filed its campaign finance reports weeks late and only after Strimling’s campaign complained about the expenditures.

Strimling’s campaign had urged the commission to fine the PAC as much as $29,000 for its missteps.

Daniel Walker, an attorney for Strimling’s campaign, said the high fine was necessary as city elections in Portland were attracting increasingly large amounts of campaign spending, and voters, under Maine law, have a right to know who is spending that money and for what. Walker said the ethics commission had a duty to make an example of Unite Portland.

Walker said the campaign was satisfied with the results, even though the proposed penalty was reduced, because it sent a strong signal that PACs operating in municipal elections would be held accountable under the law.

The commission also took up a second municipal campaign issue Tuesday, fining Phillip Spiller, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in Westbrook, $900 for three late filings of expenditure reports shortly before the election.

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