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Pulse Newsletter: Tax Filings Shine Light On Democratic Dark Money In Maine

In the summer of 2019, a nonprofit group headed by a Democratic political operative began its sustained campaign to help Democrats unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

Maine Momentum was part of an elaborate effort to take down Collins, who was already considered vulnerable because of controversial votes she took during the Trump presidency. It was well staffed and clearly well funded, but the source of its funding was a mystery because it was legally allowed to shield its donors.

But that dark money veil was lifted just a bit last week when a much larger liberal group known as the Sixteen Thirty Fund released its tax filings with the Internal Revenue Service. That filing, first reported by Politico, showed that the Sixteen Thirty Fund pumped roughly $4.2 million into Maine-based groups, including more than $3.8 million to Maine Momentum, which turned around and poured that money into television and digital ads in 2019 and early 2020 that attempted to sandblast Collins’ image as a moderate. It arguably bulldozed a path for more conventional Democratic super PACs that became increasingly active when the U.S. Senate race in Maine intensified over the summer.

Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press file
Associated Press file
Republican Sen. Susan Collins speaks to workers at Reed and Reed, a contracting company, while campaigning Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, in Woolwich, Maine.

Sixteen Thirty Fund also directed grants into other new, state-level nonprofits that played a similar role in other key U.S. Senate races. While it began as a little-known organization, Sixteen Thirty Fund raised about $140 million last year, elevating its profile and becoming the most well-known dark money umbrella group for liberal advocacy — even though it’s hardly the only one.

Questions were raised about Sixteen Thirty Fund’s link to Maine Momentum in July 2019 in a report by Maine Public that attempted to run down a few clues.

First, Sixteen Thirty Fund was active in the 2018 midterm elections that Democrats used to retake the U.S. House of Representatives. Its organizational structure and grant distribution resembled the dark money network funded by the Koch brothers that has long helped Republican congressional candidates and long been decried by Democrats.

The second clue was a joint event hosted in July 2019 in Maine by a group called Tax March and Maine Momentum.

Sixteen Thirty Fund’s previous tax filings showed grants to Tax March, as well as several Maine-based groups, including the Maine People’s Alliance; Mainers for Health Care, a group supporting the 2017 Medicaid expansion ballot initiative; and Mainers Against Health Care Cuts, the group that targeted former Maine U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican, for his vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the GOP tax cut bill.

The third clue? Maine Momentum would not address its link to Sixteen Thirty Fund.

When asked before the joint event with Tax March whether the Sixteen Thirty Fund was a financial supporter, Maine Momentum director Willy Ritch did not answer directly, saying only that the group and its spinoff, 16 Counties Coalition, were “a totally Maine-based effort.”

The $3.8 million Maine Momentum received from the Sixteen Thirty Fund last year could be just the tip of the iceberg. Its recently published tax filing covers only part of 2020. The rest will be made public in its 2021 tax filings later next year.

Additionally, available tax filings show that the Sixteen Thirty Fund has received financial support from a philanthropy network run by Washington, D.C.-based Arabella Advisors. In addition to Sixteen Thirty Fund, Arabella has provided grant funding to New Venture Fund, Hopewell Fund and Windward Fund. Two of those groups have also provided grants to several Maine-based organizations, according to 2018 tax filings.

Constitutional officer shuffle

Maine will soon have a new secretary of state. It will also have a new state auditor, who will soon be the former secretary of state.

The shuffle will become official in January when Secretary of State Matt Dunlap officially departs that job and will be replaced by former state Sen. Shenna Bellows, of Manchester. Bellows, who will become the state’s first woman Secretary of State, was elected by the new Legislature on Wednesday. Before that she secured the Democrats’ nomination by defeating five Democratic challengers and winning a ranked-choice election held by the Democratic caucus that went to five runoff rounds.

Credit Michael C. York / Associated Press
Associated Press
Shenna Bellows in 2014.

Dunlap, meanwhile, will move into a brand-new job, state auditor, after an eventful four years as Maine’s top election official. It’s a job for which Dunlap isn’t currently qualified, but also one that state law provides a few ways for him to obtain the requisite licensing.

The state auditor must be a certified public accountant, certified internal auditor or certified information systems auditor. The law, however, gives Dunlap a chance to essentially learn on the job by providing nine months to secure the aforementioned certifications or pass licensing exams for any of the three positions.

That nine-month time frame would make it difficult for Dunlap to become a certified public accountant. However, he could pursue an internal auditor licensing, which can be obtained after taking a two-day test and requires far fewer certifications and coursework than the public accounting license.

Drafters of the Maine Constitution created a window for people to learn on the job, perhaps because they foresaw a side effect of allowing the Legislature to elect constitutional officers — attorney general, secretary of state and state treasurer — as well as state auditor.

Special election

Bellows’ victory this week means that Democrats and Republicans will soon be competing for a vacant Senate seat in Kennebec County.

Bellows was reelected to that District 14 seat on Nov. 3, but the seat became vacant when she won the election for Secretary of State. That means she will soon oversee an election for her old Senate seat.

Her role will be mostly ministerial — making sure ballots are printed and distributed and certifying the voting results from the 11 towns in District 14. State law requires Gov. Janet Mills to choose a deadline for the political parties to choose their respective candidates in a special election.

Democrats will be challenged to keep the District 14 seat blue. Prior to Bellows winning it in 2016, Republicans held the seat several times before and after districts were renumbered in 2012.

Democrats have a 21-13 edge in the 35-seat Senate with the District 14 seat vacant.

Mean tweets

It’s been well documented that President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, could face a difficult path to confirmation in the U.S. Senate.

One reason? Tanden’s mean tweets.

That’s the line from some Republican senators, who could block Tanden’s nomination if the party is able to hold its majority after two runoff elections in Georgia next month.

“I just think she’s gonna be radioactive,” Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn told NPR.

Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota added, “She’s been pretty partisan in some of her previous positions and in many cases with respect to Republican senators who would have to vote on her potential nomination.”

Cornyn and Thune are referring to Tanden’s tweets while leading the Center for American Progress. She was particularly critical of Republican senators, who she viewed as complicit or silent amid President Donald Trump’s divisive conduct.

Some of that conduct took place on the president’s own Twitter feed.

Among the president’s targets was Sen. Susan Collins, who could also be a key vote in confirming or denying Tanden’s nomination.

Tanden seems to know it. The Daily Beast reported last week that Tanden deleted several tweets critical of persuadable Republican senators like Collins, who Tanden once referred to as “the worst.”

It’s unclear whether those tweets will affect Collins’ vote, but she’s certainly aware of Tanden’s Twitter feed.

“I do not know her or much about her, but I’ve heard she’s a very prolific user of Twitter,” Collins told the Associated Press.

Safe harbor for election fraud

Longtime political advisor and ally Roger Stone recently added another wild plot line to the baseless conspiracy theory that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from President Trump (But somehow not any of the Congressional Republicans who emerged victorious).

It involves North Korean boats, ballots and Maine.

“I just learned of absolute incontrovertible evidence of North Korean boats delivering ballots through a harbor in Maine, the state of Maine. If this checks out, if law enforcement looked into that and it turned out to be true, it would be proof of foreign involvement in the election,” Stone recently told The Alex Jones Show.

Setting aside Stone’s incredible ability to simultaneously declare this evidence “incontrovertible” while also setting up the possibility that it might not be true, his claim raises just a few questions.

Hasn’t he seen or read “The Hunt for Red October”? Everyone knows that if you’re going to smuggle an enemy vessel into this state’s waters, you do it via the Penobscot River.

Why wouldn’t the North Koreans just execute this plot on the West Coast, which is closer?

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