Ethics panel clears Portland rep, but may limit practice

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PORTLAND — A campaign ethics complaint against state Rep. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, will not move forward.

But the method Chipman used to pay for invitations to receptions supporting his recent primary campaign in state Senate District 27, which led to the complaint by a volunteer for an opposing candidate, is likely to be prohibited in the future.

The five-member Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices voted June 29 in Augusta against reopening the complaint filed in May against Chipman by Steven Biel.

Biel claimed Chipman skirted campaign finance laws by organizing donors to pay $1,800 to produce and mail more than 5,200 invitations through Senate District 27.

Biel was a volunteer in the failed campaign of state Rep. Diane Russell. Chipman defeated Russell and Dr. Charles Radis in the June 14 Democratic primary, and faces Republican Mark Lockman and Green Independent candidate Seth Baker in the Nov. 8 general election.

He was the only Democratic candidate in the primary who accepted state Clean Election funds.

Chipman defended the move to gather contributions, saying he had checked with the Ethics Commission before printing and mailing the invitations, and noting state Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, used the same method in her 2014 campaign against Republican Cathy Manchester.

Commissioners were split 3-2 against reopening the complaint, with attorney Michael Healy and former state Sen. Richard Nass in favor of continuing the investigation.

But they were unanimous in supporting a rule change to the “house party” exception in campaign finance law that allows a contributor to spend up to $250 for invitations, food and beverages for a specific campaign reception.

A sentence specifying that the contribution can become exempt only “if paid for by a single volunteer providing the real property for the event,” was suggested, and will be reviewed at an Aug. 10 public hearing, Ethics Commission Assistant Director Paul Lavin said Tuesday.

The 9 a.m. public hearing will be held at 45 Memorial Circle in Augusta.

Two complaints lodged against Russell’s political action committee by city resident Michael Hiltz, meanwhile, will be heard by commissioners July 20.

In one complaint, Hiltz asked commissioners to determine whether the Working Families PAC meets its legal definition and whether some donations were legal.

Hiltz also alleges the email list Russell used to raise nearly $90,000 for her privately funded campaign is actually a contribution from her PAC that was not properly reported and exceeds donation limits.

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.