AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican Sen. Ron Collins of Wells was cleared of any wrongdoing in his use of taxpayer dollars by the Maine Senate Ethics Committee, which met Thursday for the first time in its 27-year history.

The committee of two Democratic and three Republican senators voted 4-1 after hours of deliberations to find that Collins did not commit the ethical breaches he was accused of by Democratic Sens. John Patrick of Rumford and Justin Alfond of Portland. They alleged that Collins paid for lodging in Augusta with money from his political action committee and then unethically filed for reimbursements from the Legislature for the same lodging.

Collins admitted that that’s what happened but argued that receiving per-diem allocations for traveling to Augusta for legislative business is not the same as a reimbursement. The majority of the committee, with the exception of Democratic Sen. Anne Haskell of Portland, agreed.

“Hopefully I can clear my name and go back to my life in Wells and proceed with my campaign. This has been a huge distraction,” he said. “The last thing I wanted to do was break the law or create an atmosphere of not being ethical.”

In a separate case, the committee voted to delay investigation or action against Sen. Andre Cushing of Newport, whom Patrick and Alfond accused of similar violations. In a unanimous vote, the committee opted to wait for the results of an investigation that was launched Wednesday into Cushing’s campaign finances by the independent Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

“There is a lot of work that potentially has to be done on this in order for it to be done correctly because of all the documentation involved,” said Republican Sen. David Burns of Whiting, who chairs the Senate ethics committee. “I think it would be really unfortunate for us to try to tackle this between now and Nov. 8 [Election Day].”

Alfond spoke on behalf of Patrick, who did not attend Thursday’s hearings. He argued that Patrick’s complaints were aimed at defending the integrity of the Senate and protecting taxpayer resources.

“If something was done wrong, then this committee, which hasn’t met in a very long time, ever, we need to take a look at it. This is how democracy works,” he said. “We need to make sure that taxpayer money is used properly at all times.”

Republicans, including Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, accused Alfond and Patrick of election-year politicking of the worst kind.

“It’s absolutely and positively essential that these men that had their reputations questioned deserve a right for the public to know their side of the story,” said Thibodeau to the committee during Thursday’s hours-long hearing. “I’ll assure you that the people I talk to back home hate more than anything the negative tone and the continued demonization that American politics has become.”

Some committee members expressed anger at Patrick for not attending Thursday’s hearing. Alfond said Patrick, who sent the committee a letter, had a scheduling conflict that he was unable to resolve after Thursday’s meeting was called Wednesday afternoon.

“I find this to be stunning,” said Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta. “Sen. Collins and Sen. Cushing have been trashed in the press two weeks before an election based on allegations of fraud by Sen. Patrick. He was asked to be here this morning to present these allegations to us and presumably to be able to answer questions for the committee and he’s not here. … He’s hiding behind a letter.”

Collins and Cushing asked Thibodeau earlier in the week to expedite their cases so they could conclude before Election Day, but Cushing reversed that request on Thursday through his attorney, Joshua Tardy. In addition to questions about whether he was reimbursed twice for out-of-state legislative travel — once by his political action committee and once by the Legislature — Cushing is being investigated on allegations by his sister that he intermingled personal and campaign funding.

Laura Cushing McIntyre of Hermon, who is Cushing’s sister, also is suing her brother in a suit that alleges he misused more than $1 million in family business funds, some of it for campaign and political purposes.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, said his organization’s investigation will likely take months.

Both Collins and Cushing are seeking re-election. The ethics committee voted to instruct the 128th Legislature, which will be seated in December, to examine the Legislature’s reimbursement policies and potentially clarify them. As for the probe of Cushing, it will be carried out by different lawmakers because four of the five members of the committee are not seeking re-election.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: