Commentary

Russell Receives More Sanctions From Ethics Commission

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After losing her run for the District 27 Senate seat in the primary elections, a Portland lawmaker with a long history of ethics violations has received another sanction from the Maine Ethics Commission over reported contributions from her leadership PAC.

Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, who operates the Working Families PAC, was given a $500 fine for failing to disclose an email list of donors that her campaign used to raise roughly $90,000 for her Senate bid.

In the past, Russell has referred to her PAC and extensive donor list as a “progressive power machine,” used to elevate the dialogue on liberal issues and help women get elected in Maine, despite only four percent of its expenditures going to Democratic candidates and organizations in Maine.

The Ethics Commission voted unanimously to fine Russell after concluding she failed to disclose the in-kind contribution of the email list, comprising 130,000 names, to her campaign.

Russell fought back at the allegations, arguing that the email list was her personal property and not owned by the Working Families PAC that she operated.

The Maine Ethics Commission also reviewed and rejected a complaint by Michael Hiltz, a Chipman supporter, who accused Russell of using her PAC as an “unregulated money mill” to her own benefit.

Russell faced similar accusations in March when she came under fire after the publication of a Pine Tree Watchdog article that criticized the spending of Russell’s Working Families PAC. The article, written by Naomi Schalit, exposed Russell’s unethical PAC spending which included expenditures for travel, food and personal items like a New York Times subscription and phone bills.

Despite her astronomical fundraising efforts, Russell finished last in the primary election behind Ben Chipman and Charles Radis. The trio of Democrats ran for the Senate seat being vacated by Justin Alfond. Chipman secured the bid with 53 percent of the vote. Russell finished with just 23 percent.

Russell has been compiling her email list since 2011. She used the list to solicit most of the money she used for her campaign, which raised the most money for any legislative candidate this cycle. Between January and May of this year, Russell used the list to solicit nearly $87,000 from individual donors all across the country.

The vast majority of those donations came from individuals contributing $50 or less, meaning their personal information is not required to be disclosed to the public.

Many in the ethics community believe it is among the highest amounts ever raised for a legislative race in Maine. The closest campaign to Russell’s in fundraising totals was Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin) who raised just $28,171 in comparison.

When the email list was finally contributed to the campaign, Russell and her attorney speculated the email list was worth approximately $1,500 but never anticipated such a large response from donors to her campaign.

“I honestly didn’t think there was any value to it,” Russell told members of the commission. “I knew that I had built something big but I really had no idea. And so I didn’t think of it as something that needed to be reported.”

Russell’s narrative has changed over time, however.

When being interviewed by Schalit for the Pine Tree Watchdog story, Russell had this to say:

“I have a pretty sizeable email list nationwide. I use that often to help people battling progressive battles either locally or nationally. No one in the state has built what I have built, very few lawmakers in the country have built what I have built – it is a progressive power machine and I am more than happy to turn it on.”

It’s good to see Russell is more humble about her operation when standing in front of an ethics commission.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is a policy analyst for the Maine Heritage Policy Center. He can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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