Fines Imposed on Advocacy Group Supporting ‘Right to Repair’ Referendum for Late Disclosure of Significant Donations

    The Political Action Committee (PAC) responsible for a successful referendum initiative to ensure independent repair shops have access to vehicle diagnostic data is facing fines of up to $240,000 for missing notification and reporting deadlines after receiving large donations.

    The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics, however, is only recommending fines of $50,000, taking into account how past cases were resolved. The fines will be discussed at a meeting on Wednesday.

    Under state law, ballot question committees that raise and spend money for or against a people’s veto or referendum campaign must notify donors who contribute more than $100,000 that they must file disclosures with the state ethics commission. Copies of these notices must also be sent to the commission.

    The Maine Automotive Right to Repair Committee received contributions of over $100,000 from six donors. However, they were late in notifying five of these donors about their major contributor status, and they were also late in notifying the commission about all six donors. According to a memo from Emma Burke, the political committee and lobbyist registrar for the commission, these notices should have been sent within five days but were delayed by weeks or months in some cases.

    Although the ballot question committee raised a total of close to $5 million in its campaign to pass the referendum, the commission can only assess fines equal to 10% of the total contributions required to be reported, with a cap of $50,000 for each violation of the requirements to notify the donor, the commission, or both.

    Representatives of the committee argued that there were misunderstandings around the process and requested that the fees be reduced to a total of $15,000. In a letter to the commission, Adrianne Fouts, an attorney for the committee, stated that they had made inadvertent errors but had made good faith efforts to comply with the major contributor requirements.

    However, Burke stated in the memo that the commission staff disagrees with the claim of a lack of specificity in their written publications. She acknowledged some gaps in communications but argued that they were not significant enough to lead to a complete misunderstanding of the requirements.

    The commission will consider requests for fine waivers for late major contributor reports or notices, although it is relatively rare for such waivers to be granted. In a previous case in 2021, the fines were reduced to between $2,000 and $2,500. However, Burke noted that the requirements had only been in place for a short time at that point, and ballot question committees should now be more aware of the requirements.

    Some major donors to the Maine Automotive Right to Repair Committee are also facing individual fines for filing late reports on their contributions. Genuine Parts Company is facing a fine of $50,000, while Dorman Products faces a fine of $15,000. Both companies have requested that the fines be waived.

    Separate memos on these cases noted that the late notices from the Maine Automotive Right to Repair Committee were an issue, but other factors were also considered. The commission is recommending fines of $5,000 for each company.

    Additionally, the commission will discuss whether to assess a fine of $25,768 for a late notice to a major contributor by Maine Energy Progress, a PAC formed to oppose the takeover of Maine’s major utilities by a public power company. Commission staff have suggested a fine of $3,000, but Maine Energy Progress has requested a full waiver.

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