LEWISTON – Independent gubernatorial candidate Barbara Merrill and the Maine Economic Research Institute are the newest targets of complaints filed with the state’s ethics commission.

In the ongoing merry-go-round of allegations before the state’s Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, Merrill finds herself on both sides of the process.

She is the subject of a complaint filed July 28 by fellow independent gubernatorial candidate John Michael, and a separate complaint filed earlier in July by the state Democratic Party alleging a quid pro quo with GOP gubernatorial candidate Chandler Woodcock in her efforts to qualify for public financing of her campaign.

She also has filed her own complaint accusing the state Democratic Party charging it with conducting an illegal poll.

Michael, who’s already embroiled in a bitter dispute with the ethics commission, has accused Merrill of illegally using taxpayer money to fund campaign activities that occurred before she qualified as a Maine Clean Election candidate.

Michael, who lives in Auburn, was denied certification as a clean election candidate in June after multiple mistakes, missed deadlines and possible fraud were uncovered by the ethics commission’s staff. Michael’s appeal of that decision is pending.

Gubernatorial candidates seeking public financing must follow a strict set of rules and procedures, which includes collecting 2,500 $5 contributions to the Maine Clean Election Fund. Qualifying candidates stand to receive as much as $1.2 million to fund their general election campaigns.

According to Michael’s complaint, Merrill used public money to pay off obligations that she incurred before she was certified. The complaint says the payments to Harold Webster and Richard Dyer were illegal.

Merrill’s campaign responded to the complaint July 31 and denied any wrongdoing.

“There was never any report of a debt to them in this period because there was none to report,” Phil Merrill, Barbara Merrill’s deputy campaign treasurer, wrote in the response. “On the day that the effort (to qualify for public financing) was completed, the candidate expressed a debt of gratitude and that was it.”

Unlike Merrill and Michael, the Maine Economic Research Institute is a new entrant in this year’s ethics sweepstakes.

The Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council, an umbrella organization for unions in the state, has called into question whether MERI is a special interest group promoting a political perspective and trying to influence the public in November’s election.

MERI produced a newsprint tabloid that was distributed around the state in July as an insert in several newspapers, including the Sun Journal. In the report, MERI gives state lawmakers a numeric score based on particular votes and the opinions of an unidentified advisory council. The scores, according to MERI, gauge how well lawmakers support business and the state’s economy.

In its complaint, the Trades Council argues that MERI did not adequately identify the basis for its rankings of individual legislators in its “Roll Call 2006” report, did not adequately disclose who paid for the production and distribution of the report and inappropriately used the state seal to convey some official authority or endorsement.

Ed McLaughlin, MERI’s president and chief executive officer, called the allegations “bogus.”

“There’s nothing about it that’s factual,” McLaughlin said.

“Some people that we hold accountable don’t like that we hold them accountable for their economic performance,” McLaughlin said.

MERI maintains that its actions are nonpartisan, but John Hanson, the executive director of the Trades Council disagrees.

“Republicans score exceedingly high and Democrats score exceedingly low,” Hanson said.

“Maine’s ethics law is very clear,” Hanson said. “Any organization that attempts to influence elections must register with the ethics commission. I’m told they are not registered. … They are not registered as some kind of political organization and our complaint calls into question whether they should be.”

Both the Merrill and MERI complaints will be considered during the Aug. 23 ethics commission meeting.

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