Maine’s ethics commission has Jonathan Wayne, but it needs John Wayne.

No offense intended to the executive director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, but he’s no frontier lawman. Nor is cleaning up lawless territories part of his job, yet this duty has become his.

On Oct. 1, the ethics commission faced an onslaught of requests to investigate groups involved in November’s ballot questions. This came on the heels of an investigation into Maine Leads, a political advocacy group that funded the placement of Questions 2 and 4 before voters next month.

That investigation bore little fruit. Though Maine Leads paid to gather signatures for the questions, the ethics commission could not compel it to disclose its funding sources. The public, then, is left with no idea about who helped bankroll these initiatives. (An irony is Maine Leads is a vociferous champion of transparency in government finances, but won’t hold itself to this standard. Then again, it doesn’t have to.)

This is a failing of the law. The evidence is the slew of investigative requests the commission faced last week. While the pitched campaigning around same-sex marriage and spending caps are partly the cause of these requests, legal ambiguity on campaign finance is the culprit.

For these laws to work for the public, groups cannot skate disclosure laws after paying for signatures. National groups should not be allowed to set the agenda in Maine through veiled fundraising, as is allegedly occurring in the same-sex marriage campaign; nor should ethics investigations become tools for political bludgeoning, as is also being alleged.

Nor should a state agency tasked with monitoring transparency and accountability in Maine’s political campaigns become bogged with monumental, time-consuming financial investigations that will only shed light on campaign activity maybe months after the election is over. 

The ethics commission does yeoman’s work monitoring and auditing Maine’s clean elections program. Yet, it seems ill-equipped to handle investigations of the size and political magnitude now being asked of it. This isn’t to knock the commission; rather, it’s an appraisal of the forensic detail these inquiries require.

The goal is transparency. Dollars expended on political campaigns in Maine should be traceable to their source. The ethics commission is a great watchdog for this, but cannot also serve as bloodhound. Campaign finance laws must be strengthened with an eye toward greater disclosures.

Maybe this year’s ballot is unique. But as long as Maine has its laws on citizen initiatives, the state is vulnerable to these circumstances. A great deal of money will flow into Maine to influence votes, and along with it allegations of serious malfeasance.

It looks like Dodge City out there. Who will clean up the town?

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