AUGUSTA – Maine’s campaign finance watchdog board Wednesday fined gubernatorial candidate Barbara Merrill’s campaign $10,000 for violations of the state Clean Election Act, but stopped short of disqualifying her for public funding.

The ethics commission voted 3-1 to impose the fines after receiving a complaint from another independent Blaine House candidate, John Michael of Auburn, that Merrill’s campaign had breached the law.

The commission agreed that Merrill’s campaign improperly used Clean Election Act money to reimburse two campaign workers for services they provided during the qualifying period for public funding.

Merrill’s campaign told the commission that the two campaign workers were not paid for services during the qualifying period, and submitted a sworn affidavit to that effect. That contrasted with a campaign report to the commission that listed $9,800 in payments during the early phase of Merrill’s campaign.

“If we’re going to give out taxpayers’ money, we’d better make sure we follow every rule,” ethics commission Chairwoman Jean Ginn Marvin said before the commission’s vote.

The commission could have disqualified Merrill for Clean Election funds. The maximum fine allowed for each violation was $10,000, meaning Merrill’s campaign could have been fined up to $20,000. State law forbids the use of Clean Election money to pay the fines.

Philip Merrill, the candidate’s husband and her campaign’s deputy treasurer, said he would have to review the commission’s written decision before deciding whether to appeal the fine.

Much of Wednesday’s discussion revolved around the word “reimbursement,” which Merrill’s campaign used in a finance report to describe a $1,500 payment to H. James Webster, one of the campaign workers. The other recipient, Dyer Associates headed by Dick Dyer, received $8,300.

The total, $9,800, exceeds the $6,255 the campaign had received in “seed” money, the early, limited contributions campaigns may receive to get started before they receive Clean Election disbursements.

State law allows only the use of seed money for campaign expenses during the qualifying period for Clean Election funding.

Webster said he regrets using the word reimbursement in the accounting of Clean Election funding. When a commissioner asked why the word was used, Webster said, “Can I respond to why it’s there? Because I was an idiot.”

In a separate case Wednesday, the Commission of Governmental Ethics and Election Practices decided no violations had occurred when officials in Merrill’s and Republican gubernatorial candidate Chandler Woodcock’s campaigns accepted $5 contributions from each other to qualify for Clean Election funding.

The Maine Democratic Party complained that the swapped donations appeared to violate a law that says a payment, gift or anything of value may not be given in exchange for a qualifying contribution. To qualify for Clean Election funding, gubernatorial candidates must collect 2,500 donations of $5 each.

The two campaigns had responded that the $5 donations given by Woodcock campaign manager Chris Jackson and Merrill to each other were tokens of good will and expressions of support for the Clean Election Act, and were legal.

The commission also rejected a complaint by Merrill’s campaign that the Democratic Party had conducted a “push poll” designed to weaken support for her and two other candidates in mid-July. The panel agreed with a staff finding that the survey did not violate a law outlawing push polling.

The ethics commission did vote to fine the state Democratic Party $5,000 in a separate case for a late filing of a report showing $22,539 in payments for campaign literature on behalf of at least two candidates.

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