Portland newspaper says ethics investigation could 'chill' free speech

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PORTLAND — Attorneys representing The Portland Press Herald have told the state Ethics Commission that a complaint filed about a series of free ads supporting Portland’s switch to an elected mayor is without merit and threatens free speech.

At issue are six free, full-page advertisements supporting the ballot question that appeared in the Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in the week running up to the vote last November.

Thomas Valleau, a former city official and Portland Charter Commission member who opposed the referendum, asked the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices to investigate the ads.

Valleau argued the paper’s donation of nearly $47,000 worth of ads should have been registered as the work of a Political Action Committee and that the newspaper should have disclosed the donation of free ad space to its readers before the election.

Jonathan S. Piper, one of three attorneys for MaineToday Media, which owns the Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, among other newspapers, said the complaint is without merit.

In a written response submitted to the commission, Piper said that regardless of whether the complaint was valid under state election statue, that statute could not be applied to a newspaper.

“Any application of the statute that could possibly chill the use of a newspaper as a medium of political expression is forbidden by the Constitutions of both the United States and Maine,” Piper said.

Valleau acknowledged the newspaper is certainly free to give away ads, write and publish opinions, and report in any manner it wishes. But he pushed back against the notion that the newspaper is exempt from election laws.

“It’s not an attack on free speech,” Valleau said Monday. “I hope to be able to convince the commission that the newspaper has a higher duty to be in total compliance with the rules because of their great influence and their responsibilities in elections in informing the public.”

Piper said the ads were given to the Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce and not the Elect Our Mayor/Yes on 1 PAC. The newspaper had no control over the content, he said.

He also said the newspaper frequently donates ad space to nonprofit groups, and gives the chamber at least a quarter-page ad a week in exchange for a “substantial discount” in the cost of being a major chamber sponsor, which would otherwise cost the paper $25,000 a year. 

Chamber CEO Godfrey Wood, in a separate response to the commission, said a volunteer chamber board member approached MaineToday Media Publisher Richard Connor “to discuss support for the elected mayor campaign, including ad space.”

Wood, who is married Karen Wood, publisher of The Forecaster, said the chamber, which has two PACs, had long advocated for the elected mayor. He said the PACs supported the elected mayor effort with cash, ad space and in-kind donations. 

“The newspaper’s donation of ad space was part of our ongoing business relationship of in-kind donations with additional ad space being made available,” Wood said. 

Wood said he was not aware of direct communication between the Elect Our Mayor PAC, which he said had “direct and final control” over the ad content, and the newspaper.

Wood did not offer an opinion when asked about the newspaper’s intent behind providing the ads, but Piper said the purpose was to “further the arrangement of the chamber.”

While the Elect Our Mayor/Yes on 1 finance report indicated the value of the ads was nearly $47,000, Piper said “the actual out-of-pocket cost to the paper … is below $5,000.”

A campaign finance report released 14 days after the election listed the Portland Regional Chamber as contributing more than $46,500 in advertising to the campaign via the Press Herald.

A notation said, “The Portland Press Herald did not charge the Portland Regional Chamber for the ad space.”

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said groups whose major purpose is not to influence elections must register as ballot question committees if they spend more than $5,000.

Expenditures are defined as a payments, advances, or gifts of money or anything of value made for the initiation, support or defeat of a campaign, referendum or initiative, Wayne said.

Piper, meanwhile, said Press Herald readers had enough information to be aware of the “genesis, financial and otherwise,” of the ads.

He provided the commission with copies of the ads, the first two of which say they were “Paid for by the Portland Regional Chamber.” The remaining four indicate they were “Paid for and Authorized by Elect Our Mayor, Yes on 1! Kimberly Cook, treasurer.”

The final three ads also promote the newspaper’s endorsement of the elected mayor proposal.

The Ethics Commission is expected to hear testimony in Augusta on Feb. 17.

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