LEWISTON – The staff of the Maine ethics commission is recommending that several ethics complaints set to be heard next week be dismissed without further action.

The final decision on the complaints will be made by the commission’s members, but the recommendations provide some good news for Republican gubernatorial candidate Chandler Woodcock and a mixed finding for independent gubernatorial candidate Barbara Merrill.

The staff of the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices is recommending the dismissal of a complaint filed by the state Democratic Party concerning qualifying contributions exchanged between Woodcock and Merrill.

While collecting contributions to qualify for public financing of their campaigns, Woodcock and Merrill found themselves in adjacent booths at a sportsmen’s show. The two, along with two other campaign workers, exchanged $5 qualifying contributions to the Maine Clean Election Fund. Democrats alleged that the contributions violated state law because they represented a quid pro quo.

“The Commission staff finds the explanation that the qualifying contributions were made by Woodcock and Merrill as a token of good will completely believable,” wrote Jonathan Wayne, the executive director of the ethics commission. “Even if an exchange of qualifying contributions between opposing candidates were deemed to be prohibited, the staff believes the exchange would not threaten these candidates’ qualification for public funds.”

Another complaint, filed by independent gubernatorial candidate John Michael against Merrill, did not receive a staff recommendation.

In his complaint, Michael accused Merrill of improperly paying campaign workers with Clean Election money for work that was performed before she qualified for public funding.

“The Commission staff believes that Mr. Michael has raised a legitimate issue,” Wayne wrote.

“In the staff’s opinion, your resolution of this matter should depend on your assessment of the facts based on testimony you hear at the August 23 meeting,” Wayne wrote.

The staff outlines two options that the commission could take if it rules against Merrill. Merrill could be disqualified from public financing or face a civil penalty not to exceed $10,000.

Of the more severe penalty, disqualification, Wayne advised the commission to consider two countervailing factors:

“More than 2,500 Maine citizens expressed their support for public funding of Ms. Merrill’s campaign” and “Disqualification may be perceived as greatly disproportionate to the degree of non-compliance involved.”

The staff also recommended the dismissal of a complaint filed by Merrill alleging the Democratic Party conducted an illegal push poll.

Under Maine law, for a poll to be considered illegal, it must meet five specific criteria. The poll must single out a subset of voters or use a specific list to select respondents. It does not collect demographic information. Results from the survey aren’t tabulated. It uses untrue information. And the primary purpose of the poll is to suppress voting or change a person’s position.

Again writing for the commission staff, Wayne said the staff has concluded the telephone survey was not a push poll, based on interviews with people who were called and evidence submitted by the party.

The staff also recommended that no action be taken on a complaint regarding a legislative scorecard produced by the Maine Economic Research Institute. The report, which was distributed by MERI in daily newspapers around the state, including the Sun Journal, ranked state legislators based on their legislative record and the recommendation of an advisory panel.

The ethics commission will meet Aug. 23 to consider the full slate of complaints.


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