AUGUSTA (AP) – Independent gubernatorial candidate Barbara Merrill said Thursday that a watchdog panel’s ruling that she violated Clean Election standards is no big deal and she plans to pay the $10,000 fine rather than appeal the ruling that came down the previous day.

Political observers, meanwhile, were divided on whether the case will hurt Merrill, one of seven contestants in this fall’s Blaine House race.

“It certainly doesn’t help her,” said University of Maine political science Assistant Professor Mark Brewer. “I think it’s a pretty significant setback for her campaign.”

On Wednesday, the Commission of Governmental Ethics and Election Practices issued two $5,000 fines against Merrill’s campaign after deciding that it illegally used Clean Election Act money to reimburse two campaign workers for services they provided during the qualifying period for public funding. The fine can’t be paid with public money.

Merrill said Thursday that while she believes the ethics commission erred in its decision, she accepts it and will not appeal the $10,000 fine.

“Do I wish there had been a better decision? Of course. But I’m going to live with that decision,” said Merrill, a state representative from Appleton.

Asked if the violation will hurt her campaign, Merrill said, “Absolutely not … I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.”

State Republican Executive Director Julie Ann O’Brien agreed, saying, “I don’t think it will affect it in any way.”

O’Brien said she understands how easy it is to violate state Clean Election regulations, which she described as complicated, adding, “I think Barbara is an upstanding and upright person and this was not a conscious deception on her part.”

The GOP official acknowledged that her party is likely to gain in November from Merrill’s participation, because it’s widely expected that the independent will draw more votes from Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. O’Brien also acknowledged that Merrill took a hit from “bad headlines” about the ethics case, but can overcome the unfavorable publicity.

State Democratic Chairman Ben Dudley believes the damage is more serious and will be more lasting, saying, “For a lot of voters, it’s a first impression.”

“It was a clear violation of the Clean Election Act and cuts into Merrill’s credibility as someone who can reform state government,” said Dudley.

UMaine’s Brewer said the violation and fine won’t necessarily torpedo Merrill’s campaign “but it could end up being a relatively significant problem.”

Brewer, a registered Republican who is inactive politically, agreed that Merrill’s candidacy stands to benefit GOP candidate Chandler Woodcock. He said Wednesday’s development presents an opportunity for Baldacci to try to wear down support for Merrill.

Brewer believes Merrill faces bigger challenges than independent Angus King, who brought personal wealth and greater recognition to his successful 1994 race for governor. Merrill, who has less money and less public recognition, did not need an extra roadblock thrown in her path, Brewer said.

“She can overcome it, but you have to remember this is a campaign that had a long way to go uphill in the first place,” Brewer said.

AP-ES-08-24-06 1710EDT

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