AUGUSTA — A Republican member of the state ethics commission has stepped down, leaving the panel with just three of the five members it is authorized to have as Maine heads into the 2020 election cycle.

Bradford Pattershall, an attorney from Freeport, is running for the Maine Senate District 24 seat and by law cannot also serve on the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices. That leaves the regulatory board with two Democrats and one Republican.

Bradford Pattershall Contributed photo

The commission, oversees a staff that administers campaign finance, lobbying disclosure and Maine Clean Elections Act laws, issuing fines for violations and offering training seminars. For nearly two years, the panel been working with just four members, with a vacancy in the seat designated for a person who is not enrolled in a major political party.

Although the commission often reaches consensus in its findings, Chairman William A. Lee III, a Democrat from Waterville, raised concerns about a depleted membership even before Pattershall’s resignation. Lee warned in November that an understaffed commission could leave it ineffective and unable to do its job.

Under state law, House Republican leaders are responsible for putting forward a nominee to replace Pattershall, while all four State House party caucuses and Democratic Gov. Janet Mills need to agree on a nominee to replace the commission’s independent member.

Lindsay Crete, Mills’ press secretary, said the governor has asked Republican House leaders to quickly nominate a replacement for Pattershall. Crete said Mills is still talking with caucus leaders about a candidate to fill the independent seat.

“The Governor believes the Commission, which serves an important function in protecting the integrity of our democratic system, operates best when all the seats are filled by qualified individuals,” Crete said in a prepared statement. “And she hopes to have that done by the end of this legislative session at latest.”

John Bott, a spokesman for the House Republican caucus, said in a written statement Friday that the party is working to find a replacement for Pattershall. “House Republican leadership has been in contact with the Governor’s office and expects to provide them with potential candidates very soon,” Bott said.

Bott added that legislative leaders had also forwarded recommendations to Mills for candidates to fill the independent position.

Commission members are confirmed by the state Senate for three-year terms – the previous independent, Margaret “Meg” Matheson, served for nearly nine years. By law, a commissioner can only be appointed to two three-year terms, but can serve for a third term if a replacement hasn’t been found. Matheson said she felt she had done her time in public service when she finally stepped down in March 2018.

The new  Republican vacancy comes with primary or general election campaigns looming for all 186 seats of the Legislature, as well as fundraising efforts for two significant statewide ballot measures.

In recent years, the commission has played a key role in enforcing campaign finance violations and most recently levied a $2,000 fine against Mills’ inauguration committee for continuing to raise funds to pay for her inauguration after a legal deadline.

The commission has also levied fines against ballot question committees for deceptive practices or misreporting sources of campaign cash in recent years, including levying a record $500,000 fine against a failed York County casino campaign in November of 2017.

Commissioners are sometimes required to recuse themselves for conflicts of interest, as was the case in a recent $500 fine against a 2016 political action committee headed by House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport. While the vote on that fine was a unanimous 3-0, Meri Lowry, a Portland Democrat, sat out the vote because she had contributed to Gideon’s U.S. Senate primary campaign. Gideon is among four Democrats hoping to be her party’s challenger to incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in November.

Maine legislative leaders and Mills have failed for 21 months to settle on a nominee for an independent or third-party commissioner. State law requires the commission have no more than two members from any political party to ensure fairness in decisions.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the commission’s staff, said there was little doubt the commission functions best when it is at full strength but also said he believed lawmakers were working to fill the vacant seats on the panel before the end of the current legislative session, expected in either April or May.

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