Maine panel ends ethics probe on Portland lawmaker, but illuminates legal loophole

Good morning from Augusta, where a Portland lawmaker running for a Maine Senate seat in the city declared victory after a state ethics panel vote on Wednesday.

But it wasn’t such a slam dunk and his case illuminated what advocates called a loophole in state election law.

It revolves around Rep. Ben Chipman, a Democrat running in a Senate primary in June against Rep. Diane Russell and Charles Radis for the seat now held by Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland. The winner of that race is a virtual lock to win the seat in November.

But last week, Russell supporter Steven Biel complained to the Maine Ethics Commission that Chipman, who’s using Maine’s taxpayer-funded campaign system and therefore can’t take private contributions, violated election law by having contributors pay for a mailing that invited people to house parties for his campaign next week.

Biel questioned whether Chipman was violating the “house party exemption,” allowing campaign volunteers to pay $250 per election for “invitations, food and beverages” for “candidate-related activities.”

Under Maine law, these aren’t contributions and don’t have to be disclosed, but Biel asked the commission to determine how individual contributors qualified for a bulk mailing rate and who paid for the mailings.

Chipman countered that it was legal, providing an invoice that showed the mailing cost $1,828.76 and was paid for by nine contributors who Chipman said have been volunteering or will volunteer with his campaign, none of whom went over the $250 limit.

That didn’t fly with Commissioner Michael Healy, who made a motion to find Chipman in violation of the law. But it failed after it wasn’t seconded. Then, Chairwoman Margaret Matheson made a motion to find no violation. That also failed for lack of a second.

Then, commissioners voted unanimously not to continue their investigation and direct staff to clarify the exemption, which Assistant Director Paul Lavin said could result in new rules later this year.

After the decision, Biel said “the floodgates are open” to publicly funded candidates “collecting $250 checks to pay for an virtually unlimited political advertising under the guise of organizing house parties.”

But Chipman issued a statement saying he won at the commission, dismissing the complaint as “an attack” from a Russell backer meant “to distract attention” from her past campaign finance violations, including fines relating to her political action committee. Biel said it wasn’t motivated by politics and he’d vote for Chipman if he wins the nomination.

However, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, a group supporting the state-funded campaign system, said in a letter that use of the exemption “has gradually increased and expanded in ways that raise concerns,” suggesting that the commission convene a stakeholder group to consider ways to tighten it.

So, this is an issue we’ll likely hear more about between now and the next state election cycle. — Michael Shepherd

Poliquin’s non-reversal reversal on LGBT-rights amendment

With support from Republicans who voted against it last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment on Wednesday affirming President Barack Obama’s executive order barring companies from getting federal work if they discriminate against LGBT employees.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine’s 2nd District was one of the Republicans who voted for it on Wednesday after being heavily criticized for switching to vote against it last week.

But like many congressional votes, it isn’t that simple, and Poliquin’s seeming reversal really isn’t a reversal in the end.

In a 223-195 vote, the House passed the amendment to a spending bill that was offered by Rep. Sean Maloney, D-New York. Poliquin voted for it, which would be a reversal by itself.

But after that, he also voted for an amendment from Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Alabama, that would insert exemptions for religious groups. That amendment passed in a 231-179 vote.

Last week, Poliquin voted against the Maloney amendment, which would have overturned language in another spending bill similar to Byrne’s Wednesday amendment. On Wednesday, other Republicans were using the Byrne amendment to justify voting for the Maloney amendment, according to Roll Call.

In a statement, Poliquin said his votes were consistent, that he’s “firmly opposed to discrimination of any kind, at any place and at any time” and he “continued to vote to protect all Americans and organizations from being discriminated against, including our religious institutions.”

“I am pleased that important language was added to this appropriations bill to protect both our LGBT communities and our religious institutions from discrimination,” he said.

Democrat Emily Cain, Poliquin’s 2016 opponent, has seized on the issue, issuing a Thursday statement saying the freshman congressman has taken “every side of this issue” and “is now trying to have it both ways.”

“The only issue here that Congressman Poliquin cares about is the potential political impact to himself,” she said.

But not much has changed on the issue, which figures to be a key wedge in this nationally targeted campaign for the 2nd District. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said Thursday that it was making a five-figure digital ad buy linking Poliquin and other House Republicans to Donald Trump, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee.

The Maine Democratic Party held a press conference outside Poliquin’s Bangor office on Thursday, with Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage organizing a counter-protest. — Michael Shepherd

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About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.