Ethics Problems Cast Shadow on Clean Elections


by Leif Parsell

The election for Maine’s 138th House District may begin earlier than expected, as speculation swirls around the fate of current Representative David Burns (R-Alfred), found guilty by the Ethics Commission last week of campaign finance violations. Burns also finds himself as Exhibit A in the debate over Maine’s publicly-funded campaign system.

Burns, serving his first term as a state representative, faces re-election in November 2012, but the ethics violations and a possible criminal investigation have led to speculation that he may be forced to resign. Though further publicity over the matter is likely the last thing Republicans are interested in, the confluence of Burns’ transgressions with a renewed debate over taxpayer funding of political campaigns offers an interesting opportunity for opponents of so-called ‘Clean Elections’ laws.

Maine’s ‘Clean Elections’ law is facing a bleak future, as the Supreme Court ruled recently that the so-called ‘matching funds’ provision, long a centerpiece of a candidates decision to opt for public funding, violated the 1st amendment. The court found that the speech of traditional candidates was restrained by the knowledge that any funds spent would be provided in-kind to their Clean Election opponents.

The recent rulings have forced the legislature to re-examine the law, and advocates for taxpayer-funded campaigns are seeking ways around the Supreme Court ruling. During hearings on November 29th, Democratic Party members Senator Patrick (D-Rumford) and Representative Carey (D-Lewiston) argued forcefully for a new system which ensures that Clean Election candidates receive additional public money during their campaigns. Proponents fear that without a system for providing additional disbursements, Clean Elections candidates risk being trapped by the public system into a finite amount of expenditure, while a privately-funded opponent is free to raise and spend as much as they can.

When reached for comment, Senator Patrick expressed concern that, without a system in place to ensure that Clean Elections candidates can match the spending of traditionally-funded opponents, the system, currently used by 80% of candidates, would be abandoned. As a candidate who has long opted into Clean Elections, Patrick also praised the fact that, because he did not have to raise money from any people or organizations in his district, he felt he was beholden to no interests when serving in Augusta.

However, this debate over state funding for political campaigns brings the Burns case front-and-center as an example of the risks inherent in a system that some Republicans are calling ‘welfare for politicians’. “Our Clean Elections laws have utterly failed to clean up elections, and have nothing to do with improving ethics,” said State Representative Rich Cebra (R-Naples), Chair of the House Ethics Committee. “Seeing taxpayer money wasted like this, at a time when social services budgets are being slashed, is just ridiculous. We need to get taxpayers off the hook for this kind of nonsense.”

Advocates of taxpayer-funded campaigns take a starkly different view of both the Clean Elections system, and the Burns case. Both Andrew Bossie of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and House Minority Leader Representative Emily Cain (D-Orono) were of the opinion that Burns’ conviction showed the strength of the Clean Elections system. Bossie said, “The Clean Election system has a lot of accountability built into it, as this episode illustrates. Hundreds of candidates in each of the last six election cycles have used the system, and the vast majority use funds appropriately and report accurately. But, when there are lapses, appropriate action must be taken.”

Questions about whether GOP leadership will take a stand against one of their own, with the possible fringe benefit of eroding public support for Clean Elections, are still largely unanswered. Speaker of the House Robert Nutting (R-Oakland) simply stated that he was aware of the ruling against Representative Burns, and awaited the findings of the Attorney General.

Members of the opposition Democratic Party suggested that those, like Burns, who are found guilty of elections violations, should step aside. Representative Cain, when asked for comment on whether Burns should resign now that he has been convicted of Clean Elections violations, stated that, “It would be appropriate for a member proven guilty of violating election law to step down.”

If Burns’ seat is vacated, it would mean the fifth special election held during the 125th Legislature, though a sixth, to fill the seat of Senator David Trahan (R-Waldoboro), who has said that he will resign before the second session begins, is expected to take place this winter. The Burns seat is seen as competitive; though Republicans have held it for decades, Burns won 50-47% in 2010, a banner year for Republicans state-wide, and the previous Representative, James Campbell Sr., won by only 2.2% in 2008.

The Attorney General’s office could not speculate on a timeframe for its criminal investigation of Rep. Burns. The legislature will take up the Veterans and Legal Affairs committee’s recommendations on changes to the Clean Elections law when the second session begins in January.

Relevant Links:
Maine Ethics Commission Report on Burns Violations:
Maine 138’s District
Representative Burn’s Legislative Page


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