Ethics panel seeks info from Portland chamber, newspaper ahead of hearing

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PORTLAND — Proponents of last year’s successful campaign for an elected mayor have until Wednesday, Feb. 2, to respond to the state Ethics Commission’s request for more information about nearly $47,000 in newspaper ads.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, said the the panel will hear testimony in the case on Feb. 17.

The commission is considering a complaint filed by Thomas Valleau, a former city official and Charter Commission member, who opposed the referendum and claims The Portland Press Herald violated state election laws.

Valleau said the newspaper donated about $47,000 in free advertising to the Elect Our Mayor/Yes on 1 Political Action Committee.

Valleau contends the newspaper should have registered as a ballot question committee. He also claims it was ethically dubious for the state’s largest daily newspaper not to disclose the donation to its readers.

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, 2010. The free ads began running the next day and continued through Election Day on Nov. 2, 2010.

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.

In a Jan. 21 letter, Wayne asked the newspaper to describe how the ad gift originated and which organization had control of the content.

He asked whether the purpose of the ads was to support the referendum and whether the gift was part of, or separate from, a standing agreement with the chamber.

Wayne also summarized the applicable election law by which the commission will judge the paper’s actions.

Wayne said state law requires groups whose major purpose is not to influence elections to register as a ballot question committee if it makes an expenditure of more than $5,000.

An expenditure is defined as a payment, advance, or gift of money or anything of value made for the initiation, support or defeat of a campaign, referendum or initiative, Wayne said.

But Wayne also indicated that donations made to a PAC do not count towards that $5,000 threshold.

“The rationale for the exemption is that donor organizations are disclosed to the public as cash or in-kind contributors in the recipient PAC’s campaign finance report,” Wayne said.

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.”

Richard L. Connor, publisher and editor of Maine Today Media, which owns the Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and other newspapers, did not respond to requests for comment by Tuesday morning.

A newspaper advertising executive previously told the Press Herald the ads were part of the standing agreement with the chamber.

Meanwhile, Wayne has put similar questions to the chamber.

Wayne asked the chamber to clarify its relationship to the PAC and whether the chamber knew of any direct communication between the PAC and the newspaper about the content of the ads.

Chamber CEO W. Godfrey Wood previously told The Forecaster that the Press Herald knew the ads would be used to support the elected mayor campaign, and the ads were above and beyond their standing agreement for a weekly quarter-page ad.

Wood, who is married to Karen Wood, publisher of The Forecaster, would not comment on Tuesday about whether that would be the chamber’s official response to the Ethics Commission.

The Ethic Commission will take up the complaint on Thursday, Feb. 17, in Augusta.

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

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