December 1, 2010

Ethics officials fine consultant for improper calls

Must pay $274 for anti-LePage effort

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- Maine's ethics regulators voted Tuesday to impose a $274 fine on a New Hampshire political consultant for improper campaign tactics on behalf of former Republican gubernatorial candidate Les Otten.

Michael Dennehy failed to put the proper disclaimers on a last-minute call targeting the eventual winner, Republican Paul LePage, that went to more than 7,000 Republicans on the eve of the June 8 primary, according to Maine Commission on Gubernatorial Ethics and Election Practices staff.

State law requires communications to voters to identify who paid for the calls and whether they were authorized by any candidate.

Dennehy also failed to report to the ethics commission the $200.45 he spent on the calls.

"Seven thousand households received these calls," said Executive Director Jonathan Wayne. "They deserved to know who paid for these calls and whether another candidate authorized it."

Dennehy said he acted without permission from Otten or his campaign staff; the ethics commission investigation backed that claim.

Michael Mahoney, a Hallowell lawyer, represented Dennehy at the commission.

"I do want to point out my client could not regret more the chain of events that occurred on the eve of the party primary," he said. "He is personally embarrassed. If he could turn back the clock he would."

The calls targeted LePage for his stance on civil unions, questioning whether he has "any real convictions." LePage opposes gay marriage and civil unions, but believes civil contracts between couples can be used to establish property rights and other matters.

The ethics commission began investigating the calls in June after a concerned citizen complained that there was no way for voters to know who paid for the calls.

Throughout the campaign, Otten paid Dennehy more than $30,000 for consulting work. Dennehy has worked as senior adviser to Sen. John McCain's two presidential campaigns. He's also worked for candidates in Vermont, Rhode Island, Texas and Arizona and is a former executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

Ethics commission member Michael Healy said he believed that neither Otten, nor his campaign manager, Edie Smith, knew about the calls. But he questioned whether Dennehy should be considered an agent of the campaign because he was a paid consultant.

"To me, it doesn't make any difference whether it was authorized or not," he said. "This is not just a volunteer who went off on their own."

Wayne and commission members said they would like to consider whether fines for this type of violation should be increased.

Commission member Edward Youngblood said some campaigns might decide to go forward with a last-minute attack knowing that even if they got caught, it would still be a small fine.

"If I wanted to raise the devil for very little money, knowing I would get caught after the election, I'm willing to pay $200 to do that," he said.

In other action, Wayne said he is continuing to investigate two other high profile cases. One involves a website that targeted independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler. The Cutler Files, which was taken down last month, was critical of Cutler in many areas, but did not list the name and address of the person who spent money to oppose his candidacy.

Wayne said he has an interview scheduled with one of the two people believed to be behind the site. If the other person does not cooperate, Wayne said he may ask permission to subpoena the other party.

He said he's also trying to conduct the investigation with the intention of not revealing their identities to the public.

The other case involves a possible fine against the Republican State Leadership Committee-Maine, which was found to have failed to file reports on time for money spent on state Senate races.

Wayne said he will be prepared to recommend a fine in December or January.


Susan Cover -- 620-7015

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