- Associated Press - Friday, September 8, 2017

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - State law allows Maine lawmakers to collect unlimited money from corporations and lobbyists through their political action committees and, if they choose, use the money to bail out family businesses.

Several ethics officials and lawmakers have long lamented largely unrestricted “leadership PACs” that supporters say help lawmakers recruit state-level candidates and fundraise to become legislative leaders.

The issue over how the funds are used came to light recently when the Maine ethics commission imposed a $9,000 fine on Republican Assistant Senate Leader Andre Cushing, who faced violations in part for failing to report short-term loans from his leadership PAC to a family business.

How lawmakers use the money can be “highly unusual” but legal, said commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne. In Maine, PACs face almost no legal restrictions for spending. In fact, PACs only have two spending rules: They can’t give over-the-limit contributions to candidates or buy alcohol that will be drank on election day.

Democratic Sen. Justin Chenette said the issues raised by the ethics investigation highlight the need to keep lawmakers from being able to run their own PACs. Currently, only candidates who solely rely on public campaign funds are prohibited from running leadership PACs.

“It’s just basically a political slush fund, and that’s not OK,” said Democratic Sen. Justin Chenette, who said he’ll again submit legislation eliminating leadership PACs. Such a bill died this year despite some original Republican co-sponsors.

Cushing told ethics investigators he transferred money to the family business, New England Forest Products, to make “seasonal purchases or to cover other needs when ordinary cash flow was not sufficient,” according to an ethics staff memo. According to that review, Cushing withdrew $40,800 from the PAC and returned $38,600 - leaving $2,200 unreturned, Wayne said.

Cushing said lawmakers are free to review existing campaign finance law but declined to comment in detail about how he used the PAC money, citing ongoing litigation. His sister filed a lawsuit in Penobscot County Superior Court claiming Cushing misused more than $1 million in family funds.

Chenette said his main concern is unlimited money that flows from corporations and special interest groups to lawmakers sitting on committees that regulate such donors.

The Associated Press reviewed 2016 campaign reports and found 36 leadership PACs launched by both parties reported collecting more than $650,000 combined from corporation, lobbyists, special interest groups and individuals. An additional $200,000 came from other political action committees, including other leadership PACS.

Republican Rep. Sheldon Hanington co-sponsored the bill to eliminate leadership PACs but voted against it in committee. He and Republican Rep. Bradlee Farrin, who also voted the bill down in committee, said it’s unfair to pick on leadership PACs when the real issue is all outside funds.

“Money in politics turns us into full-time politicians, and I don’t think that’s what our forefathers thought of when they talked about a citizen legislator,” Farrin said.

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