Last November, Mainers voted to pass Question 1, nearly tripling the amount of taxpayer funds received by political candidates who run through the “clean elections” program. Question 1 also increased penalties for breaking campaign finance rules and changed the disclosure for donor requirements.
The organizations in favor of Question 1 were heavily funded and spent over two million dollars advocating for the passage of the bill. One of the groups in favor was a ballot question committee called Proteus Action League.
A ballot question committee (BQC) is an organization formed for the purpose of influencing a Maine election with a budget in excess of $5,000. A BQC must register with the state and file campaign reports by deadlines which are set in statute. In addition, they must conform to disclosure requirements of Maine Election Law.
The Proteus Action League (PAL) registered as a ballot question committee in August of 2015 to support Question 1 on the November 3, 2015 ballot. They filed their first quarterly report by the deadline of October 5, 2015. However, this filing was done incorrectly because it did NOT indicate on schedule A that it had self-funded roughly $253,547 that it donated and spent to promote the initiative.
After the error came to light, the preliminary accessed penalty by Maine Ethics was $172,412. The formula to calculate penalties takes into consideration the percentage of financial activity reported late and the number of days reported late. As such, the fine was steep due to the large amount of undisclosed money.
Proteus Action League (PAL) is a 501 (c)(4) nonprofit organization engaging in political activity and an affiliate of the Proteus Fund, which is a global foundation managing collaborative grant making over a range of social change issues nationwide. These are professional, highly paid organizations who are no strangers when it comes to the world of campaign and ballot finance.
With the director of Finance and Administration as the treasurer for PAL, it is hard to imagine that they didn’t know what they were doing when they omitted this significant disclosure from the quarterly report.
A legal team consisting of three lawyers met with Maine Ethics on April 15th to review the case. Lawyers argued for a reduced penalty for two reasons: They claimed that Ms. Magua was “inexperienced” and they claimed that they should not be subject to the larger penalty because the law increasing it (Question 1) had not actually gone into effect yet.
Another words, they claimed immunity to the very law they sought to enact.
Staff recommendations at Ethics indicate that “The timely filing of accurate campaign finance reports is the bedrock of Maine’s campaign finance disclosure system, as one of the chief purposes of campaign finance laws is to timely inform voters of who is trying to persuade them at the ballot box. Voters are barraged with campaign messages and, as a shorthand or filter, some voters will give the messages more or less credibility or weight based on their evaluation of the trustworthiness of the source of the message (e.g. labor vs. business, party–based organizations, in-state vs. out-of-state advocates, religious organizations).
These are some of the reasons that Maine voters just approved the inclusion of top-three donors in independent expenditure communications to influence candidate races. The commission staff disagrees that the harm to the public was minimal when the BQC failed to disclose that it self-funded some $250,000 in campaign contributions and spending. The public deserved to know the source of the funds during the weeks leading up to the election.”
In the end, the penalty was reduced to $15,000. This is a great injustice to the voters of Maine.
As an strong, outspoken opponent of Question 1, I can tell you that this outcome was predicted. We knew that increasing penalties would have little effect because paying fines is just the cost of doing business for these giant lobbying groups. We predicted that teams of highly paid lawyers would be used to deflect blame and decrease punitive actions.
*It is my personal experience that the Maine Ethics Committee does an incredible job with their work. During the four campaigns I have been actively involved with, I have called their office with an assortment of questions and have always received prompt and accurate information. They are easily reached and if there is any doubt as to how to handle a given situation, they may be relied upon to assist you.