On Wednesday, the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices fined Governor Janet Mills’ inaugural committee $2,000 for continuing to accept donations 10 months after the deadline to cease fundraising. According to a 2015 law passed by voters at the ballot box, Mills’ inaugural committee could have faced up to $10,000 in fines for fundraising after the deadline.
The law stipulates that an inaugural committee may only accept donations until January 31st of the year following the gubernatorial election. In addition, the committee may not receive contributions from lobbyists or their employers during the legislative session.
Further, the law requires the committee to submit a financial disclosure that provides the names, addresses, occupations and employers of all donors who contribute money or anything of value worth more than $50. Contributions worth $50 or less can be reported in the aggregate without identifying details, similar to reporting requirements for other political committees. Because the law was passed after Governor LePage was re-elected in 2014, Mills was the first governor required to abide by the 2015 law.
In January, the committee accrued a debt of $194,902 owed to the Augusta Civic Center for Mills’ inauguration and inaugural celebration. According to the committee, the expense was $62,902 higher than the initially quoted price of $132,000. A large chunk of the expense emanated from a 20 percent food and beverage charge that cost a total of $26,421. Because of the large debt and lack of funds to cover it, the committee was forced to fundraise past the January 31st deadline to pay the debt in full.
On December 2nd, the committee made its last payment of $47,902 to the Augusta Civic Center with a final cash balance of $6,618. The final supplemental disclosure submitted to the commission showed that about 70 percent ($43,000) of the fundraising between September 14th, 2019 and December 9th, 2019 came from S. Donald Sussman, former majority owner of MaineToday Media (Portland Press Herald) and a large donor to Democratic political campaigns.
Michael Carey, Mills’ inaugural committee attorney, argued that the committee was completely transparent and met the public interest under the law by reporting all donations and expenditures on time and by observing the prohibition on in-session fundraising from lobbyists.
Nonetheless, the inaugural committee still violated current law by fundraising after the deadline. If nothing else, this case will illustrate the need for future governors to spend within their means and fundraising capacity. After all, the committee would have been able to pay off the debt within the timeframe had they spent less in the first place.
All in all, the commission decided to fine the committee $2,000 because they wanted to remain consistent with past decisions concerning financial reporting, and also wanted to send a message to ensure future candidates to follow existing law. Commissioner Meri Lowry said, “I don’t see harm to the public here…but I am stopped by the fact that there was an express deadline and it was blown through.”
According to the Portland Press Herald, a bill to change the reporting and fundraising requirements for inaugural committees is expected to be considered in the Second Session of the 129th Legislature. The session officially begins on January 8th, 2020 and statutory adjournment is set for April 3rd, 2020.