AUGUSTA – During his campaign for governor in 2002, Republican Peter Cianchette received significant – and illegal – contributions from the Cianbro Corp., a construction company closely tied to his family.
In documents presented to the state ethics commission, Cianchette admitted that Cianbro spent more than $68,800 in coordination with his gubernatorial campaign. The legal limit for contributions is $500.
The campaign also failed to disclose the contributions in the five campaign finance reports filed during the campaign. Amended reports were filed this month, acknowledging the Cianbro contributions.
Election law in 2002, however, did not have provisions to punish over-the-limit contributions from corporations. The commission’s finding that contribution limits were exceeded carries no penalty. In 2004, the law was amended to add penalties for contributions over the legal limit, but those penalties cannot be applied to the Cianchette case.
However, the commission also found Friday that the Cianchette campaign failed to comply with disclosure requirements on three of five reports and fined the candidate $12,000.
Cianchette faced a maximum penalty of $5,000 for each inadequate campaign report. The commission found that two early reports were in substantial compliance with the law. Three later reports, however, were found to be insufficient. The maximum penalty of $5,000 was assessed on two; a $2,000 fine was assessed on the third.
Cianchette, who attended the hearing with his attorney, was clearly distraught after the ruling by the commission.
“I disagree with their finding,” Cianchette said during a brief exchange with reporters. “I have responded with complete and full disclosure.”
Cianchette also said that after the contributions were brought to his attention, he reacted as quickly as possible to file amended, accurate reports and that he believes he’s in full compliance with the law.
He refused to comment on Cianbro’s role in his campaign or the appropriateness of their actions in 2002. He did say that he would pay the fine, not Cianbro.
“We made contributions to the campaign,” said Alan Burton, the vice president of human resources, safety and health for Cianbro. “We’re not disputing that.”
According to Burton, Cianbro Corp. felt that Cianchette was the best candidate for governor and that he has close ties to the company. “The community in Pittsfield loves Peter Cianchette.”
“We got overzealous in our support,” Burton said. “But there was never any intent for wrongdoing.”
The commission, during deliberations, struggled with what they described as the unfairness of Cianchette bearing full financial responsibility for the violations when Cianbro was also involved and deserved some punishment for its actions. They were also torn by the fact that Cianchette would be personally liable for any fines assessed since his campaign committee has been dissolved.
“We tried to come up with a compromise that was fair, but also sent a strong message to other candidates,” Commission Vinton Cassidy said. “I believe him when he says he wasn’t aware of the contributions, and I didn’t think he deserved the maximum penalty. We tried to come up with something that’s fair.”
The illegal contributions were brought to the attention of the ethics commission by former Cianbro employee Ron Harwood, whose job gave him access to information that showed the company had set up at least one account, called the “airport hanger job,” to where contributions to the Cianchette campaign were listed.
Harwood presented evidence that the company had provided in-kind contributions of $53,000 to the Cianchette campaign. An audit conducted by the company and Cianchette himself to answer the charges found that actual contributions were $68,808.
According to testimony presented by Harwood, Cianbro also took other actions to hide their involvement in the campaign and pressured employees to work on Cianchette’s behalf while being paid by the company.
“We did not set up the â€˜hanger job’ account solely for the purpose of hiding contributions,” Burton said. “We did work on the hanger. It’s just that some of the people doing work on that job just happened to be working on the campaign. There was no intent of wrongdoing.”
Cianchette told the commission that he was unaware of the work being done by Cianbro for his campaign, but said that he still had an obligation to make accurate disclosures.
“I didn’t have personal knowledge of all of these expenditures,” Cianchette testified Friday. “The fact that I wasn’t aware doesn’t exempt the campaign. … I regret that you need to be dealing with this today.”
In materials provided to the commission and in discussion during the hearing, Jonathan Wayne, ethics commission executive director, said that Cianchette had been extremely cooperative with the investigation and had reacted promptly to requests for more information.
Cianchette worked for Cianbro most recently in 1985. His father, Bud Cianchette, is chairman of the board, and Cianchette has a brother and cousins who work for the company, which employees about 2,000 in the state and is based in Pittsfield. Since his campaign, Cianchette has also done consulting work for the company.