Complaint alleges Rep. Russell’s PAC was “money mill” for her

Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland.

AUGUSTA — A Portland resident has requested an Ethics Commission investigation into whether a PAC controlled by Democratic state legislator and Senate candidate Diane Russell made “fraudulent” filings, among other allegations.

Michael Hiltz asked the commission to investigate whether Russell’s political action committee, the Working Families PAC, has lived up to its stated purpose, to “help support Democrats in winning seats in the Maine House.”

Hiltz cited a March, 2016 story by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting detailing how the PAC had paid Russell almost 20 percent of its total expenditures for “online organizing” and spent less than four percent of its payments to support Democratic candidates.

At the time the story was published, Russell’s PAC had, since 2013, paid her a total of $7,747 of its total expenditures of $39,583. Most of the payments to Russell were in 2014. The PAC gave only $1,550 in contributions to Democratic candidates or organizations. The balance of the PAC’s spending was on travel, food, fundraising, office expenses and a few other small categories.

Hiltz wrote in his complaint to the commission that “the Working Families PAC has in fact served as an unregulated money mill for its principal officer, Diane Russell, during that time.”

Russell is in the middle of a hotly contested primary race for the Democratic Senate nomination to represent a large portion of Portland and several Casco Bay islands. She’s a four-term member of the House of Representatives and is will face off June 14 against House Rep. Ben Chipman, a former independent who became a Democrat last summer, as well as against physician Charles Radis, from Peaks Island.

“This complaint is a distraction and it won’t keep me from talking about the issues that matter to the people of Portland, like strengthening Portland’s economy, creating jobs that pay livable wages and increasing funding for Portland’s schools,” said Russell Monday. “I am in a heated primary and the timing of this is clearly intended to influence the outcome of the race. I think Portland voters will see through these political tactics.”

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Elections Practices, said that the complaint would be considered by commission members on June 29, after the primary.

“The Commission received Mr. Hiltz’s complaint and is currently conducting some preliminary fact finding,” said Wayne.

At their meeting, commission staff will present a memorandum on the case and Russell will be allowed to present her response to the complaint. Ethics Commission staff said Russell is represented by Kate Knox, a Portland attorney who serves as general counsel to the state Democratic Party.

Hiltz said Monday evening that he did not live in Russell’s district, so would not be voting for any of the candidates in the race. He said that his purpose in filing the complaint was to help voters make informed decisions.

“I think even before the commission meets, if people know the right questions to ask then the voters can be more informed,” said Hiltz. “Whether the commission rules on it or not, these are questions that voters need to be asking as well.”

Hiltz’s complaint is the second ethics commission complaint in the race. On May 18, a supporter of Russell filed a complaint against Chipman alleging that he violated campaign finance rules regarding disclosure of spending on a campaign mailing. The commission declined to pursue the complaint against Chipman and instead instructed staff to clarify the law governing such disclosures.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, non-profit news service based in Augusta. Email: pinetreewatchdog@gmail.com. Web: www.pinetreewatchdog.org.

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