May 23, 2024


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Maine ethics commission orders investigation into conservative group’s software system

The Maine ethics commission voted 3-2 this week to investigate whether the conservative political group ALEC is illegally trying to influence elections by providing a software package to lawmakers.

But the state Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices also voted unanimously to dismiss a complaint that two Republican state lawmakers violated state campaign finance laws after it was determined they never used ALEC’s software for campaign purposes.

The commission’s votes Wednesday follow a complaint by the Center for Media and Democracy accusing ALEC – the American Legislative Exchange Council – and the lawmakers, Rep. Matt Harrington, R-Sanford, and Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, of violating state laws requiring that in-kind contributions be listed with a candidate’s regular campaign finance reports. The center has filed similar complaints in 11 other states as it targets ALEC, a Virginia-based nonprofit that writes legislation that is then introduced in different states by conservative lawmakers.

Some of ALEC’s legislation has become law in Maine. In 2012, bills largely written by ALEC authorized Maine’s first charter schools, and then its first virtual charter schools. Several ALEC-written bills that focused on education policy wound their way through the Maine Legislature, but few became law.

Critics of ALEC have cited its shadowy funding and focus on corporate benefits, and that it keeps its members’ identities secret. The Center for Media and Democracy has clashed with ALEC for decades, most recently over the software package at the center of the Maine dispute.

The center has also filed a whistleblower complaint against ALEC with the Internal Revenue Service charging the organization with violating its nonprofit status by engaging in efforts to influence elections, prohibited under federal law. The complaint alleges ALEC provides its 2,000 members, most of them Republican lawmakers, with data from a campaign vendor linked to the Republican National Committee, and that the data ALEC members enter in the system goes directly to the RNC. ALEC does not provide similar information about Democratic voters.

Harrington and Stewart are the state chairs for ALEC in Maine. Both lawmakers said they were aware of the software, which ALEC claims is meant to help lawmakers manage constituent communications, but said they did not use it.

Meanwhile, the Center for Media and Democracy, a Madison, Wisconsin-based left-leaning nonprofit that bills itself as a watchdog over ALEC, argued that the software is a voter database that focuses on Republican voters and donors and is nearly identical to campaign software made by Voter Gravity, which also created the ALEC system. ALEC members are allowed access to the system as part of their $100 two-year membership fee.

Stewart said Wednesday that the last time he even logged into the system was in 2017 to determine if it would be useful for Maine lawmakers. He said he decided it would not.

“We realized it was not going to work for us and that was it,” Stewart said. Harrington said he was given a demonstration of the software but never even set up an account or a password.

“I’m just an old-school kind of guy,” Harrington said. “I print out a voter list and make notes on it.”

Jason Torchinsky, an attorney for ALEC, urged the ethics commission to dismiss the complaint in its entirety, saying there were no grounds to suggest that having access to the software alone would constitute an in-kind campaign contribution.

He also charged the Center for Media and Democracy with trying to get the ethics commission to conduct a “fishing expedition” to root out which Maine lawmakers are members of ALEC.

“There is no indication this software was ever used for campaign activity and this complaint should be dismissed today,” Torchinsky said. Torchinsky also emphasized that those accessing the software online have to check off disclosures saying they won’t use it for campaigning.

“This is like a Rube Goldberg type of effort you are looking to undertake here and I really urge you to dismiss this,” Torchinsky said.

But Arn Pearson, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, said the software is identical to Voter Gravity software sold by a for-profit company to Republican candidates, and is meant to help them track supportive voters and donors.

“You can give someone a loaded gun and tell them they can only use it as a paperweight, but you’ve still given them a loaded gun,” Pearson said. Pearson said ALEC has raised more than $1.7 million for the program and has promoted it among members as a “game changer,” instructing ALEC state chairs such as Stewart and Harrington to use it to recruit new members.

The commission, made up of two Democrats, two Republicans and one independent, voted 3-2, with Republicans opposed, to have its staff investigate the software to determine whether it could be used for electioneering or not.

Commission Chairman William Lee, a Waterville Democrat and attorney, said the vote was not a determination that campaign finance laws were violated, but rather a directive to determine whether the ALEC software has value and should have been reported as an in-kind contribution.

In its promotion to members, ALEC values the software at $3,000. Maine’s campaign finance laws cap in-kind contributions to traditionally financed candidates at $400 for primary and general elections, meaning anything over that would also violate state ethics laws.

Lee and the commission’s other Democrat, Sarah LeClaire of Woodland, and its independent member Richard Marble of Hampden, voted in favor of having commission staff review and compare the ALEC CARE software to the Voter Gravity software before the commission takes the matter up again in October.

“There’s enough here to look into further, that’s where I’m at,” Lee said before the vote.

The Republican commissioners, William Schneider, a former Maine attorney general from Durham, and David Hasting, a former Republican state lawmaker from Fryeburg, opposed that decision.

“I do not believe there is evidence to show sufficient grounds for believing a violation may have occurred and I think this is a tremendous misuse of the staff’s time,” Schneider said.

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