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Bill Would Force Maine-Based PACs to Shed Light on Secretive Contributors

The Maine Legislature could force shadowy groups bankrolling Maine political campaigns to reveal their top donors.

Lawmakers are reviewing a bill from the Maine Ethics Commission that would require organizations contributing more than $100,000 to Maine-based political action committees, party committees and ballot campaigns to report their top five funders.

The proposal would have affected 13 organizations that donated a combined $14 million to Maine-based PACs in the last election.

Among those groups is the Alliance for Healthy Marijuana, a nonprofit that gave more than $200,000 to oppose last year’s marijuana legalization referendum. Other than its address in an office park in Alexandria, Virginia, little is known about the group.

Similarly, it took a review of IRS records to find out who was behind the New Approach PAC, the group that gave over $2 million to the pro-legalization campaign. Among the donors, tax documents show, was a man who made his fortune selling auto insurance to high-risk drivers; another who inherited his wealth from his father, who had cashed in on scented soap; and another who launched a catalog that sells sex toys.

“Our bill is intended to give members of the public a fighting chance to understand who these out-of-state groups are,” says Ethics Commission Assistant Director Paul Lavin.

The Maine Ethics Commission oversees and enforces the state’s campaign finance laws. Its proposal, endorsed by the commission’s five-member board, would do something few state or federal campaign finance laws do: shed light on a growing number of pop-up nonprofits, limited liability companies and other organizations often described as dark money groups.

These groups have exploded in popularity in Maine elections, as well as those in other states. Four years ago, an investigation by ProPublica found that tax-exempt nonprofits, specifically social welfare organizations, had vastly outspent so-called super-PACs in the 2012 elections.

Both types of organizations can spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections with campaign ads and communications. But as Pro Publica’s Kim Barker told public radio station WYNC in New York four years ago, dark money groups are increasingly attractive to corporations and the wealthy.

“And the theory goes that a lot of the groups giving to these particular C4 groups are corporations or other folks that don’t want anyone to know that they’re giving,” she says.

The proposal before the Legislature would take away some of those donors’ anonymity. A group that contributes more $100,000 or more to a PAC would have to file a one-time report disclosing its top five funders from the previous calendar year.

According to the Ethics Commission, only California is known to have a similar requirement. That means Maine could become a leader in dark money disclosure.

Only two groups, the Ethics Commission and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, testified in support of the bill. Nobody testified in opposition, but that doesn’t mean it’s not being actively opposed behind the scenes.

Dark money election spending has been embraced by liberal and conservative causes alike. And like their campaign contributions, they may prefer to keep their opposition to the transparency bill a secret.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.