Panel drops Chipman probe, but may change rule

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PORTLAND — A campaign ethics complaint filed against state Rep. Ben Chipman will not be pursued by the state.

The Clean Elections provision Chipman used to pay for invitations to receptions May 31 and June 1, however, could end up being amended to clamp down on the practice.

“The commission voted not to conduct any further investigation,” Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, said May 26. “It was not a rejection of the complaint.” 

Commissioners reviewed a complaint May 25 that was filed by Steven Biel, a city resident and volunteer in state Rep. Diane Russell’s campaign against Chipman and Dr. Charles Radis for the Democratic nomination in state Senate District 27.

Biel, who is also the treasurer for School Board member and City Council candidate Pious Ali, alleged Chipman spent more than allowed to print and mail 5,200 invitations, did not properly disclose his campaign’s involvement when he used the campaign’s postal meter permit number for the mailings, and said Chipman’s use of a “host committee” skirted a “house party” provision allowing a contributor to spend up to $250 for invitations, food and beverages for a reception.

In response, Chipman showed the invitations cost $1,800, or about half what Biel claimed, and were handled by Mailings Unlimited, which used its own postal permit.

“We knew all along the ethics commission would reject the complaint,” Chipman said of the 4-0 vote not to further investigate Biel’s complaint.

Wayne said the vote did not mean commissioners were not concerned about the law allowing Chipman’s use of host committees he said paid the $1,800 cost for printing and mailing invitations.

“It was a lively discussion among the commissioners, with different points of view presented,” he said.

Ultimately, commissioners did not decide whether Chipman either violated or was in compliance with the law. They instructed Wayne and his staff to look into what emergency rules could be enacted to prevent the creation of host committees.

Motions to call the $1,800 a contribution because it exceeded the $250 maximum, or to find there was no violation, both failed for lack of seconds from commission members.

Wayne said he and his staff will report back to commissioners at the June 29 meeting, and emergency rule changes are but one option to be considered.

In his presentation, Chipman said he had vetted the invitations and method for paying for them with commission staffers, who may have taken a wider view of the spending limits than the commissioners took at the hearing.

In a May 24 memo to the commissioners, Wayne said Assistant Director Paul Lavin did not have all the information the commissioners had.

“During his conversations with Mr. Lavin, Rep. Chipman did not specify the number of volunteers, the cost of the invitations, or the number of invitations that would be mailed,” Wayne said.

Patrick Quinlan, who manages Chipman’s campaign, said they were also assured by Lavin that the law does not place limits on the number of volunteers splitting the cost of the mailing.

“If an ethics staff member told us, which he did repeatedly, that there are no limits to volunteers or costs, then there is no reason why he would know the specific number of volunteers or the costs,” Quinlan 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.