Weekly Radio Address: Cenette says Legislature must close PAC loopholes

Posted: October 13, 2017 | Senator Chenette, Weekly Radio Address

The historically low trust the public has in its elected officials is directly tied to the presence and influence of big money in politics. If we’re ever going to restore the public trust, we must close loopholes that allow politicians to treat our political system like their own personal piggy bank.

Hi, this is Senator Justin Chenette from Saco. Thanks for tuning in.

We all know that political action committees, or PACs, are the favorite mechanism to gain influence over our political system. PACs are so popular, in fact, that many legislators themselves operate one.

Earlier this year, an incumbent Republican senator racked up massive fines for not disclosing campaign spending. He failed to report $8,884 of PAC spending used to repay his personal credit card. And he failed to report roughly 40 percent of the money his PAC received during a post-election filing period.

It gets even worse: An investigation by the Maine Ethics Commission found that in the prior election cycle, this senator had used his PAC to pay his family business $11,000. The senator himself said he transferred these funds as a “loan” to keep the business afloat. At the end of the day, the Commission found the business only repaid a portion of those loans.

This is an example of an elected official — and not only that, but an elected member of the Republican leadership — using our political system to benefit their own bottom line. The worst part is: None of this is illegal. Rules governing PACs in Maine are so lax that nothing prevented this GOP lawmaker from using our campaign finance system as his own personal lending agency.

Mainers deserve a political system that benefits the public good, not the bottom lines of shady lawmakers. We’ve already made it illegal for PACs or campaigns to pay lawmakers, but politicians can get around this rule by simply writing checks to businesses they control — even if those businesses are simply pass-throughs to their own bank accounts.

I’ve introduced a bill to close this campaign finance loophole once and for all by making it illegal to use a PAC for personal profit. Politicians who collect checks from lobbyists shouldn’t be allowed to turn around and write checks to themselves through their businesses.

Failure to file a campaign finance report is a Class E crime in Maine, but the Ethics Commission determined that this senator’s omissions were simply “late,” and charged him a relatively small fine. So I’ve also introduced a bill to clarify the difference between late and unfiled campaign finance reports. Politicians shouldn’t be allowed to hide their campaign activity for years and get away with a slap on the wrist for “filing late” only after they’re caught.

The fate of my bills is in the hands of the Legislative Council, a bipartisan group of legislative leaders who will decide what bills are considered by the House and Senate this year. Mainers value fairness and transparency, and they deserve those qualities in their government. So I urge my colleagues on the Council to give these bills the fair hearing they deserve.

After all, we cannot expect our constituents to trust their government if we don’t act to punish and prevent unethical behavior by elected officials.

This is Senator Justin Chenette. Thanks for tuning in.