Maine Ethics Commission orders investigation into conservative group’s software system
The Maine Ethics Commission voted 3-2 this week to determine whether the conservative political group ALEC is illegally trying to influence the election by providing software to lawmakers.
But the State Commission on Government Ethics and Election Practices also voted unanimously to dismiss a complaint that two Republican state lawmakers violated the state’s campaign finance laws after determining that ‘they had never used the ALEC software for campaigning purposes.
The committee’s votes on Wednesday follow a complaint from the Center for Media and Democracy accusing the ACLE – the American Legislative Exchange Council – and lawmakers, Rep. Matt Harrington, R-Sanford, and Senator Trey Stewart, R- Presque Isle, for violating state laws requiring in-kind contributions to be listed with a candidate’s regular campaign finance reports. The center has filed similar complaints in 11 other states because it targets ALEC, a Virginia-based nonprofit that drafts legislation that is then introduced in different states by conservative lawmakers.
Some of the CAFTA legislation has become law in Maine. In 2012, bills drafted in large part by the ALEC authorized Maine’s first charter schools, and then its first virtual charter schools. Several bills drafted by the ACLA that focused on education policy were passed by the Legislative Assembly of Maine, but few became laws.
Critics of the ALEC have cited its covert funding and focus on social benefits, and the fact that it keeps the identity of its members a secret. The Center for Media and Democracy has opposed the ACLA for decades, most recently over the software package at the center of the Maine conflict.
The center has also filed a whistleblower complaint against ALEC with the Internal Revenue Service accuse the organization of violating its nonprofit status by engaging in efforts to influence elections, prohibited by federal law. The complaint alleges that the ACLA provides its 2,000 members, mostly Republican lawmakers, with data from a campaign provider linked to the Republican National Committee, and that the data that CAFTA members enter into the system go straight to RNC. The ALEC does not provide similar information on Democratic voters.
Harrington and Stewart are the State Presidents of the ACLA in Maine. Both lawmakers said they were familiar with the software, which the ACLA said is intended to help lawmakers manage voter communications, but said they had not used it.
Meanwhile, the Center for Media and Democracy, a left-wing nonprofit based in Madison, Wisconsin that touts itself as a watchdog of the CAFTA, has argued that the software is a base for voter data which focuses on Republican voters and donors and is almost identical to campaign software. made by Voter Gravity, who also created the ALEC system. CAFTA members are permitted to access the system as part of their two-year $ 100 membership fee.
Stewart said on Wednesday that the last time he logged into the system was in 2017 to determine if it would be of use to lawmakers in Maine. He said he had decided not to.
âWe realized it wasn’t going to work for us and that was it,â said Stewart. Harrington said he received a demo of the software but never even created an account or password.
âI’m just an old school guy,â Harrington said. âI print out a voters list and take notes on it. “
Jason Torchinsky, an ALEC lawyer, urged the ethics committee to dismiss the complaint in its entirety, saying there was no reason to suggest that mere access to the software would constitute an in-kind contribution to the campaign.
He also tasked the Center for Media and Democracy with trying to get the Ethics Commission to lead a “fishing expedition” to find out which Maine lawmakers are members of the CAFTA.
“There is no indication that this software has ever been used for campaign activities and this complaint should be dismissed today,” Torchinsky said. Torchinsky also pointed out that those who access the software online should check off disclosures that indicate they will not use it to campaign.
âIt’s like a Rube Goldberg-type effort that you seek to undertake here and I really urge you to reject that,â Torchinsky said.
But Arn Pearson, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, said the software is identical to the Voter Gravity software sold by a for-profit company to Republican candidates, and is intended to help them track voters and supporting donors. .
âYou can give someone a loaded gun and tell them they can only use it as a paperweight, but you still gave them a loaded gun,â Pearson said. Pearson said the CAFTA raised more than $ 1.7 million for the program and promoted it among the membership as a “game changer,” asking CAFTA state presidents such as Stewart and Harrington to use it to recruit new members.
The committee, made up of two Democrats, two Republicans and an independent, voted 3-2, with Republicans opposed, to have its staff investigate the software to determine whether or not it could be used for election purposes.
Commission Chairman William Lee, Democrat and lawyer for Waterville, said the vote was not a determination that campaign finance laws had been violated, but rather a directive to determine whether the ALEC software was of value and should have been reported as an in-kind contribution.
In its promotion to members, ALEC values ââthe software at $ 3,000. Maine’s campaign finance laws cap in-kind contributions to traditionally funded candidates at $ 400 for primary and general elections, meaning anything that violates state ethics laws.
Lee and the commission’s other Democrat, Sarah LeClaire of Woodland, and her independent member Richard Marble of Hampden, voted for commission staff to review and compare ALEC CARE software to Voter Gravity software before the commission resumes the question in October. .
“There’s enough here to dig deeper, that’s where I’m at,” Lee said ahead of the vote.
Republican commissioners William Schneider, former attorney general of Maine in Durham, and David Hasting, former lawmaker for the Republican state of Fryeburg, opposed the move.
âI don’t think there is sufficient evidence to believe that a breach could have occurred and I think this is a huge misuse of staff time,â Schneider said.
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