Ethics complaint filed over Portland Press Herald donation to proponents of mayoral election

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PORTLAND — An opponent of the successful effort to have an elected mayor has filed a formal ethics complaint over nearly $47,000 in free advertising provided to the campaign by The Portland Press Herald.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, on Monday confirmed the agency received the complaint filed by Thomas Valleau. Wayne said it will likely be taken up by commissioners at their February meeting.

At issue are nearly $47,000 in free advertisements given to the Elect Our Mayor/Yes on 1 Political Action Committee in the week leading up to the November City Charter amendment referendum.

Valleau, a former Charter Commission member, claims the Press Herald gave the PAC eight full-page color ads without disclosing its involvement to the city or its readers.

Valleau, who opposed the elected mayor, in a press release said he filed the complaint because he believes Maine election law requires the newspaper to register with the city and disclose the ads as a political contribution. 

A campaign finance report listed the Portland Regional Chamber as contributing more than $46,500 in advertising in the Press Herald to the campaign. But a notation said “The Portland Press Herald did not charge the Portland Regional Chamber for the ad space.”

The ballot measure to switch to an elected mayor, who will serve a four-year term and earn an annual salary of $67,000, passed by 1,138 votes, 12,963 to 11,825.

“Newspapers should not donate free advertising to political campaigns that they decide to favor,” Valleau said. “In any event, the public has the right to know who is behind attempts to influence the vote.”

Michelle Lester, vice president of advertising for MaineToday Media, which owns the Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, said in a statement to the Press Herald that the ads were part of a standing agreement between the newspaper and the chamber.

Valleau called that explanation “outlandish” and “goofy,” saying daily, full-page, color ads for the chamber were unprecedented.

“They have never donated a full-page color ad, let alone eight in a row the week of an election,” he said.

The newspaper executive’s explanation also seems to contradict previous statements made chamber Chief Executive W. Godfrey Wood, who is married to Karen Wood, publisher of The Forecaster newspapers.

Wood told The Forecaster that the chamber’s agreement was for a weekly quarter-page ad, and that the additional free advertising was given to the chamber with the understanding it would be used to promote the elected mayor campaign.

Press Herald Executive Editor Scott Wasser previously said he had no knowledge of the advertising arrangement and defended the newspaper’s coverage of the charter amendment campaign, suggesting opponents were criticizing the newspaper because their side lost.

According to newspaper archives, the Press Herald published two editorials in support of an elected mayor, and its last news story ran on Oct. 25. The free ads began running the next day and continued through Election Day on Nov. 2.

Wasser told The Forecaster he had no knowledge of the ads.

But Valleau, who said the daily paper declined to publish a letter he submitted in opposition to the elected mayor proposal, said it was hard to believe that no one in the Press Herald newsroom noticed the full-page color ads.

“They were reporting on this issue. They were editorializing on this issue. They were selecting letters to the editor to publish on the issue,” he said. “And they were secretly bankrolling one of the two sides. This is not the right role for a newspaper.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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