The Maine Ethics Commission will review the finances of 15 so-called “leadership PACs” run by state lawmakers to ensure the groups are keeping accurate records and not violating state laws prohibiting personal use of PAC money.

Members of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices stressed Wednesday that the reviews were being conducted “without any suggestion of impropriety.” But they also acknowledged that the structure of leadership PACs – political action committees set up by legislators to raise and spend money – means there may be fewer “checks and balances” than in larger organizations.

“Leadership PACs are different than other PACs … because really you’ve got one person controlling this money,” said William Lee, chairman of the five-member commission. “Of course, the only reason we found out about the one case we had is because someone filed a lawsuit. Otherwise, we would never have known.”

The “one case” Lee referenced was in 2016 and involved a former state legislator who loaned his family business more than $40,000 from his leadership PAC. Andre Cushing, a Republican from Hampden, was fined $9,000 by the commission largely for paperwork issues – for filing late records and misreporting filings from his Respect Maine PAC.

The law has since been changed, however, to clarify that PACs cannot “distribute, loan, advance, deposit or gift money or anything of value” to a business owned by the legislator. The 2019 change passed by the Legislature also states PAC funds cannot be “commingled” with personal funds from the legislator or their business.

Leadership PACs get their name from the fact that they have become popular ways for lawmakers – particularly those aspiring to leadership positions – to raise money for their caucuses. But some critics contend the PACs allow lawmakers to skirt Maine’s strict contribution limits and raise unlimited funds from lobbyists, corporations or other special interests. Lawmakers have rejected proposals to eliminate leadership PACs.

Discussion of audits began soon after an internal family lawsuit brought to light the transfers of money from Cushing’s PAC to his family business. The commission subsequently received additional complaints or requests for investigations about potential violations, including one earlier this year that was dismissed because of insufficient grounds.

Leadership PACs also became an issue in Maine’s high-profile 2020 U.S. Senate race between Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon and Republican Sen. Susan Collins.

In October 2019, the Ethics Commission fined the Gideon Leadership PAC $500 for violating campaign finance rules by reimbursing Gideon for two, $250 contributions that she made to other PACs. Commissioners levied the minimal fine in recognition of the fact that the PAC never hid the reimbursements in 2016. But Republicans repeatedly cited the violation in their ads against Gideon during her Senate campaign. Republicans also sought to score points against Gideon over corporate donations to her leadership PAC.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the ethics commission, noted that the structure and limited oversight of leadership PACs could raise concerns that some financial activity is never reported to the public.

“Having said that, there is not a demonstrated record of problems,” Wayne said.

Commission members agreed to review the 2020 finances for 15 active leadership PACs that reported activity of $5,000 or more and involved just one or two lawmakers. Opting to go with the word “review” rather than “audit,” commissioners endorsed a staff recommendation to examine whether leadership PACs have “accurately and completely disclosed” their finances, are following record-keeping requirements and are not violating the 2019 law change prohibiting lawmakers from personally benefiting from their PAC.

Whether such reviews become standard, or this is a one-time process, will depend on the results.

“I certainly wouldn’t agree at this time making that a formal, annual review or something that would be required through rulemaking,” said commissioner David Hastings, a former Republican lawmaker from Fryeburg who briefly had a leadership PAC. “But doing this once would certainly give me more comfort that these PACs really aren’t any more likely to be a problem than other PACs.”

Commissioner William Schneider, a former lawmaker from Durham and Maine attorney general, initially raised concerns about signals the commission was sending by singling out leadership PACs. But Schneider eventually voted for the review after language was added clarifying that the one-time reviews were being conducted “without any suggestion of impropriety.”

“I’m very sensitive to the unjust, the overwhelmingly unjust impression that a lot of people have that legislators are engaged in self-dealing,” Schneider said. “My experience with legislators across the board, regardless of party and regardless of any distinguishing features, is that they are hardworking and serving their state for the right reasons, and that they are honest and upright.”


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