Chipman faces ethics complaint in Senate race in Portland

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PORTLAND — A complaint in the race for Senate District 27 will require state Rep. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, to meet with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices Wednesday.

At issue are mailed invitations to two receptions being held to support Chipman, which Portland resident Steven Biel said skirt finance regulations for candidates receiving state campaign funding.

“The Chipman campaign is attempting to use sham party hosts, some of whom don’t even live in the district, to funnel thousands of undisclosed dollars into his campaign, thereby exceeding spending limits and disclosure requirements for donations over $50,” Biel said in a press release Monday.

Chipman, who is completing his third term in House District 39 and faces state Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, and Dr. Charles Radis in the June 14 primary election for Senate District 27, said the invitations are similar to those used by state Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, in 2014.

“We have checked with Ethics Commission staff several times, including emailing the invitation to them and asking for an opinion, prior to having it printed and distributed,” Chipman said in his preliminary response to the Ethics Commission.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne said Tuesday the commissioners will review Biel’s complaint and Chipman’s response before deciding whether to proceed.

“They could view this as completely compliant,” Wayne said.

Biel is the campaign treasurer for School Board member Pious Ali’s City Council campaign, and is a supporting Russell, but said Monday, “I am not doing this on behalf of her campaign.”

Russell on Monday said Biel is a “volunteer,” and Russell is looking forward to seeing what commissioners decide.

“It is important for campaign contributions to be disclosed to the public, and that’s what we will do when we file our report in June,” Russell said.

Biel said Chipman has violated state Clean Elections laws by not disclosing the true cost and funding source of printed invitations to May 31 and June 1 receptions hosted by supporters.

As a candidate receiving state funding, Chipman must limit campaign spending to funds received from the state. The law has an “exemption for volunteers to pay for invitations, food and beverages,” with a limit of $250.

Biel estimated $250 is less than 10 percent of the cost of printing and mailing the invitations, and said a postal meter number on them indicates the Chipman campaign mailed them without proper disclosure. He said Chipman evaded spending rules by creating a “host committee” to get more contributions.

The committee includes state Rep. Denise Harlow, D-Portland, City Councilor Belinda Ray, former Councilors David Marshall and Kevin Donoghue and School Board members Anna Trevorrow (who has a personal relationship with Chipman) and Stephanie Hatzenbuehler.

Harlow and Hatzenbuehler are not residents of Senate District 27.

“According to the Ethics Commission, a ‘party host’ is supposed to be someone who does just that, hosts a party,” Biel said. “Ben is claiming that he can take $250 from anyone, call them a member of his ‘host committee,’ and it’s legal.”

Biel asked the commission find out the cost of the mailing, how many invitations were mailed, who paid for the mailings and whether the expenditure exceeds spending allowed under the rules for Clean Elections.

Chipman said more than 5,200 invitations were mailed, at a cost of $1,800. The meter number belongs to Mailings Unlimited, the Portland company which was paid through contributions from “multiple individual volunteers.”

In closing his response, Chipman noted Biel’s connection to Russell’s campaign and the Ethics Commission fines for missed filing deadlines for her Working Families political action committee.

“The complaint in front of you, far from expressing the concerns of an active citizen, is in our opinion a politically motivated attack by an opponent,” Chipman said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.
  • Michael Hiltz

    Russell’s campaign is sickening.

  • Steven Biel

    For the record, it turns out that Ben’s evasions of disclosure requirement were even worse than I thought. He had been telling his supporters that the money for the direct mail ad came from the host committee, but after the Ethics Commission threatened him with a fine, he finally came clean with who *actually* paid for it, and it was a completely different list, including at least one registered lobbyist.

    Did that lobbyist get favors for his money? WE don’t know, but that’s why disclosure rules exist, so we can see who’s paying a candidate and make judgments. It shouldn’t require an Ethics Complaint by a resident and a 6-hour hearing to get that information.

    My position–which despite Rep. Chipman’s ad hominems has nothing whatsoever to do with my support for Rep. Russell–is that if a candidate wants to raise private money for paid ads, she or he should do that by running traditional, which requires disclosure. The Ethics Commission has the authority to ban candidates from both taking taxpayer dollars and continuing to raise secret private donations for direct mail ads, and I will be at the June 27 hearing on this topic with MCCE urging them to do so.

    Note, that’s after the primary, so there goes your theory that I’m doing this as a Russell campaign functionary.