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Ethics Commission fines leading Republican senator $9K for campaign finance violations

The Maine Ethics Commission imposed a $9,000 fine Wednesday on the second-highest ranking Republican in the Maine Senate, calling his political committees’ late filings, missing disclosures and lack of documentation “dismal record-keeping” by a seasoned politician.

Sen. Andre CushingSen. Andre Cushing, R-Newport, never contested the findings of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which oversees campaign finance laws in the state. But the three-term senator and assistant Senate majority leader maintained that the shoddy paperwork he filed was due in part to misunderstandings between himself and his bookkeeper and was compounded by a lawsuit brought by his sister.

Cushing’s sister filed a civil suit against him in October 2016, alleging that he had misused funds in a family business. She brought her complaint to the Ethics Commission because she alleged that some of the funds had been used for political activities.

The Ethics Commission voted 3-2, with Republicans Richard Nass and Bradford Pattershall opposed, to fine Cushing’s Respect Maine Political Action Committee $750 for each of ten late filings. The commission split along the same party lines in fining his reelection committee, Cushing for Senate, $1,500 for a single late filing.

Among the commission’s findings:

  • Cushing failed to report $40,800 in short-term loans that he made from his PAC to his family business, New England Forest Products, between 2014 and 2016.
  • Nearly $9,000 in purchases made on Cushing’s personal credit card that were later reimbursed with PAC funds were not disclosed in the PAC’s filings.
  • Online transactions were aggregated, rather than being itemized as required by law.
  • Roughly 40 percent of Cushing’s contributions were missing from his reelection committee’s December 2016 post-election filing.

Under state law Cushing could have been fined up to $105,000, but the commission staff had recommended that the penalty be reduced significantly, offering a range of between $11,000 and $16,500 as more appropriate since the late filings did not give an unfair advantage to Cushing in the 2014 or 2016 elections.

Commissioners agreed that the penalty needed to send a message about the importance of adhering to campaign finance disclosure rules, but they failed to come to a consensus on the exact dollar amount that needed to be assessed against Cushing.

“The criteria are not that specific, so we end up having to have discussions where we say ‘where do we throw the dart,’ and I don’t like that and I’ve never liked it,” said Democrat William Lee, III.

Democrat Meri Lowry said the Newport legislator’s disclosure violations, which date from 2014, required a strong response from the commission. “There’s an over-arching pattern of failure to disclose, over a long period of time,” Lowry said.

Even Commissioner Nass, who called Cushing “the Energizer bunny” of fundraising and admitted to having a long history of working with him, was blunt in his condemnation of the lawmaker’s filing practices. “The record-keeping here is appalling, frankly,” he said.

Commissioner Lee, a Waterville attorney and Colby College professor, said that while he was sensitive to Cushing’s personal issues, his vote to assess a substantial penalty was driven in large part by conscious decisions that the senator had made.

“Most of our cases are ‘oops,’ and they get filed as soon as the information is pointed out as incomplete,” Lee said. “For various reasons, the decision was made to basically let it ride, and that had to be with the knowledge that it would increase the penalties.”

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