May 21, 2022

Maine Ethics Commission Orders Probe 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 a software package to lawmakers.

But the state Commission on Government Ethics and Election Practice also voted unanimously to dismiss a complaint that two Republican state lawmakers violated campaign finance laws after determining that they had never used ALEC’s software for campaign purposes.

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

Some ALEC legislation became law in Maine. In 2012, bills drafted largely by ALEC authorized Maine’s first charter schools and then its first virtual charter schools. Several ALEC-drafted bills focused on education policy have passed through the Maine Legislature, but few have become law.

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

The center also filed a whistleblower complaint against ALEC with the Internal Revenue Service accusing the organization of violating its nonprofit status by engaging in efforts to influence the election, which is prohibited. by federal law. The complaint alleges that ALEC provides its 2,000 members, mostly Republican lawmakers, with data from a campaign vendor tied to the Republican National Committee, and that the data that ALEC members enter into the system goes straight to the RNC. ALEC does not provide similar information about Democratic voters.

Harrington and Stewart are the state presidents of ALEC in Maine. Both lawmakers said they were aware of the software, which ALEC said is intended to help lawmakers manage communications with constituents, but said they had not used it.

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

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

“We realized it wasn’t going to work for us and that was it,” Stewart said. Harrington said he received a demo of the software but never even created an account or password.

“I’m just an old school guy,” Harrington said. “I print out an electoral list and take notes on it.”

Jason Torchinsky, an attorney for ALEC, urged the Ethics Commission to dismiss the complaint in its entirety, saying there was no reason to suggest that access to the software alone would constitute an in-kind contribution to the countryside.

He also tasked the Center for Media and Democracy with trying to get the Ethics Commission to conduct a “fishing expedition” to find out which Maine lawmakers are members of ALEC.

“There is no evidence that this software was ever used for campaign activity and this complaint should be dismissed today,” Torchinsky said. Torchinsky also pointed out that those who access the software online must check off disclosures that say they will not use it to campaign.

“It’s like a Rube Goldberg type of effort that you’re looking to undertake here and I really urge you to reject that,” 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 donors who support.

“You 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,” Pearson said. Pearson said ALEC raised more than $1.7 million for the program and promoted it among members as a “game changer,” asking 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 an independent, voted 3-2, with Republicans opposed, for its staff to investigate the software to determine whether or not it could be used for election purposes.

Commission Chairman William Lee, a Democrat and lawyer from 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 had 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 funded candidates at $400 for primary and general elections, meaning any overrun would also violate state ethics laws.

Lee and the commission’s other Democrat, Sarah LeClaire of Woodland, and her independent member Dennis Marble of Hampden, voted to have commission staff review and compare ALEC CARE software to Voter Gravity software before the commission resumes. the case 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, a former Maine attorney general from Durham, and David Hasting, a former Republican state legislator from Fryeburg, opposed the move.

“I don’t believe there’s evidence to show sufficient grounds to believe a breach could have occurred and I think that’s a huge misuse of staff time,” Schneider said.

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. on October 1, 2021, to correct the name of the independent member of the commission.


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