Ethics complaints from Portland Senate race still to be heard

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PORTLAND — That voters approved Rep. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, over his state Senate District 27 Democratic primary opponents was clear.

On June 14, Chipman defeated Dr. Charles Radis and state Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, 1,778 to 797 to 770 vote, respectively.

Yet the contentious primary battle between Russell and Chipman is still carried on in Augusta in the form of ethics complaints each faced during the campaign.

On Election Day the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices heard an ethics complaint about Russell’s use of an email list to help generate more than $89,000 in contributions to her failed campaign.

By a 5-0 vote, commissioners found no grounds to continue investigating potential violations after Russell’s online donors failed to list employment status and the names of their employers.

By a 5-0 vote, commissioners found there were sufficient grounds to continue investigating possible violations on the email list that was used.

“That should not be understood as a statement that a violation did occur. The commissioners are interested in receiving more information from Diane Russell about her email list,” Ethics Commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne said June 16.

Commissioners will take up the question at their July 20 meeting, Wayne said.

City resident Michael Hiltz filed the complaint, saying the list was generated as a part of Russell’s Working Families political action committee and using it for fundraising possibly constituted an illegal contribution. 

“The list clearly belongs to Ms. Russell personally,” Russell’s attorney, Kate Knox said June 13. “She developed it in order to highlight a federal issue of personal interest to her. She oversees and controls the list and who is added to it.”

As noted in a Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting story and state financial records, Russell’s PAC has spent more than $40,000 and she has paid herself about $7,750 for varied expenses including “online organizing.”

The complaint against Russell was the second filed by Hiltz against Russell and her PAC. The first came June 3, asking the five commissioners to determine whether the PAC fit its legal definition while also investigating contributions made to the PAC.

That complaint will be heard June 29.

Hiltz said he had no connection to the Chipman campaign. However, he and Chipman have long been acquainted, dating to the days when both were active in the city’s Green Independent Party.

“Diane has become one of the politicians she said she was trying to get out of politics,” Hiltz said June 17, adding he has known her even longer than he has Chipman.

Hiltz’s first complaint was lodged about a week after commissioners decided not to further investigate a complaint against Chipman filed by Russell volunteer Steven Biel alleging Clean Elections donor violations stemming from the cost of printing and distributing 5,200 invitations to receptions held in support of Chipman’s campaign.

Commissioners could reopen the investigation June 29, and will definitely seek ways to close a loophole in the “house party” exemption allowing undisclosed contributions of up to $250 for food, beverages and invitations to receptions.

Chipman used contributions from eight donors to fund the $1,800 cost for printing and mailing the invitations, all within the $250 maximum that falls under the house party exemption.

In doing so, Chipman said the process was vetted by Ethics Commission staff and similar to a method used by state Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, in her 2014 campaign against Republican Cathy Manchester.

Wayne said the changes could involve advice to candidates on the exemption rule, or a tighter interpretation of that part of the Clean Elections statute that could be enforced without a revision to the law that would require approval in the Legislature.

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

Russell, Chipman

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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.