AUBURN — An independent candidate running for the Maine Legislature attacked one of his opponents and four other Democratic candidates in a full-page advertisement Monday, stating the group was “dirty, rotten, crooked” and “cheaters” by benefiting from outside money while running as Clean Election candidates.

The print advertisement, which was published on Page C2 of the Sun Journal, was purchased by John Michael of Auburn, who is running for House District 62 against Democrat Gina Melaragno and Republican Brandon Dickey, both of Auburn.

Each of the candidates pictured in the Michael ad qualified for a minimum of $5,500 in Clean Election funding, and Michael said the candidates have also been heavily enriched by thousands more dollars from independent expenditures by groups the candidates are “being sponsored by and are members of.”

The ad dubbed Senate District 21 candidate Nate Libby of Lewiston the “King Cheater” for having received the benefit of over $100,000 in PAC or party funds.

The targeted candidates criticized the ad as “immoral” and unfair.

In addition to Libby and Melaragno, the ad targeted Heidi Brooks of Lewiston, candidate for House District 61, Bettyann Sheats of Auburn, candidate for House District 64, and Rachel Sukeforth of Litchfield, candidate for House District 82.

The ad did not target any Republican Clean Election candidates, despite the fact that they, too, have benefited by as much as $7,000 from political party and third-party PAC funds, according to expenditure records filed with the Maine Ethics Commission.

Independent expenditures in Maine have rocketed during this legislative election cycle, up to nearly $14 million compared to $3.5 million spent in 2012.  

“It’s really off the charts,” said Paul Lavin, the assistant director of the Maine Ethics Commission, the agency tasked with enforcing campaign finance laws.

BJ McCollister, program director for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said outside spending in this election cycle has reached record levels and that while Michael has a point, his attack may be misguided.

McCollister said increased outside spending and the high cost of competing against it is tearing the control of campaigns completely away from the candidates involved in the actual races.

“These campaigns are just getting dominated by outside spending and it makes it very hard for the candidate to control, even when they truly want to run positive campaigns,” McCollister said.

He said proposed bills before the Legislature would increase available funds for publicly financed campaigns to make it easier for candidates to match spending, but also increase disclosure for PAC contributors, including requiring PACs to name their top donors in the advertisements they print or air.

Under state law, candidates who accept Clean Elections funds must first collect a small amount of seed donations that make them eligible for state funding, currently about $5,500 for a House race.

Those candidates are not supposed to coordinate with outside groups or PACs working on their behalf or in opposition to their opponents. But, Michael said, independent expenditures being made on a candidate’s behalf by parties or PACs closely connected to a party, while legal under state law, simply do not pass the straight-face test.

“I’m sitting here funding my own campaign and had planned on spending like $5,000,” Michael said. “(Clean Election candidates) get the public funding and then add to that with the cheat money on top.”

Michael, who left the Democratic Party in the 1990s because of campaign finance reform, said it was important to him to point out the candidates were taking taxpayer support but were also getting support from their party that far exceeds what a typical candidate could raise.

“So I was willing to dip into my own funds to whack them upside the head and call them on it,” Michael said. He acknowledged that Maine law doesn’t prohibit the practice and, in fact, none of the candidates in question have done anything illegal.

“Call it legal cheating,” Michael said. “Just because it’s allowed doesn’t mean it’s right.” 

Because the Michael advertisement is political, he is allowed a fair amount of leeway under the state’s ethics laws and his free speech rights, Lavin said.

But Sheats, a Democratic candidate featured in the ad, said Michael’s ire is far misplaced.

She also said she’s offended by the assertion that she somehow, “lied, cheated or stole.”

“There is too much outside money, but to attack us for attempting to be part of the solution is not just ironic, it’s wrong,” Sheats said. “It’s immoral.”

In the ad, under Sheats’ crossed-out face, is a note that she has benefited more than $7,000 from independent expenditures.

Sheats, who is facing Republican David Sawicki in Auburn’s House District 64 race, said Michael’s attack was really an attack on Maine’s Clean Election system.  

“My reputation is very important to me, both as a West Point graduate and as a local small business owner,” Sheats said. “I do not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do.”

State Rep. Libby, featured in the ad, had asked his party not to spend on his behalf to attack his opponent, Republican Patti Gagne, who is privately financed as a traditional candidate. He opposes outside attack spending that’s beyond the control of his campaign.

Gagne, too, has voiced her displeasure with attack mailers paid for by her party that went after Libby. In one instance she called the mailers “horrible.”

In the Senate District 21 race, outside entities have spent about $51,000 in support of Libby and about $91,000 in opposition to Gagne. And, outside entities have spent about $12,500 against Libby and about $15,000 in support of Gagne.

Sheats said she doesn’t mind Michael expressing his opinion, including saying he believes she and her Democratic colleagues are “socialists,” but she does want people to know she doesn’t coordinate with any PACs that take action on her behalf or in opposition to her opponents. She also said she’s made a point of keeping her campaign against Sawicki positive and doesn’t criticize him for his views.

“I don’t even mention his name unless people ask who I’m running against,” Sheats said. As a former Army officer, Sheats said she was particularly discouraged to have her honor derided by Michael’s attack.

The Ethics Commission has received a formal complaint about the ad, and was looking into it Monday morning.

Michael reserved the ad on Thursday but only filed a disclosure of the expenditure on Monday, which may be in violation of the state’s 24-hour campaign reporting requirement.

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