Legislator faces fraud investigation
Acting on one of the worst campaign fraud cases seen in Maine, the state ethics commission on Wednesday asked for a criminal investigation into a freshman legislator’s alleged spending of thousands of dollars in public campaign funds for personal use and false reporting of that money.
The Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices voted 4- 0 to refer the case involving Republican Rep. David R. Burns of Alfred to the state attorney general for possible criminal prosecution.
A commission audit uncovered numerous alleged illegalities, including mixing personal funds with public campaign money, submitting bogus receipts purporting to justify his spending to the commission, using thousands of dollars in public campaign money for personal use, and reporting nearly $ 1,300 in expenditures that never occurred.
Commission chairman Walter McKee said he found the candidate’s “righteous indignation” at being confronted with the audit findings, and his response by submitting false documents, “ kind of mind-boggling.”
“I certainly have never seen anything at this level in terms of severity,” McKee said.
Burns’ 2010 campaign was selected for a random audit by the ethics commission, which oversees spending of campaign funds disbursed through the taxpayerfinanced Clean Election Act.
The audit showed that Burns was authorized to spend just more than $9,000 in public money. It said that $6,711 of that was transferred from his campaign to his personal bank account, and nearly all of the money was used for expenses not related to the campaign. The audit did not provide details on how the money was spent.
When notified his campaign was being audited, Burns provided receipts from vendors, which he later acknowledged had been fabricated by an unnamed person, the report says.
The audit also identified expenditures of $ 2,285 for which there was no documentation. The ethics commission asked that those funds be refunded to the commission.
Burns was not present at Wednesday’s commission meeting but was represented by his attorney, William Logan. A phone message left for Burns was not immediately returned.
“We certainly respect the work the ethics committee has done, we’ve cooperated with the investigation and we will continue to cooperate with the attorney general’s office once the matter has been referred over there,” Logan said after the vote. Fines that the commission was authorized to levy were deferred pending action by the attorney general and possibly the courts.
McKee and auditor Vincent Dinan said they had not seen more egregious cases of public campaign finance fraud, and commission executive director Jonathan Wayne said such cases are “ extremely rare” in Maine. But Burns’ case is not unique.
In 2008, former legislator William Walcott of Lewiston was sentenced to six months in jail after admitting he stole public campaign money during Maine House races in 2004 and 2006. A prosecutor said at the time it was the longest sentence for violating the public campaign finance law.
In Burns’ case, convictions could bring a maximum fine of $10,000 for each of eight alleged violations and significant jail time.
The decade-old Clean Election Act was created by citizen initiative in an attempt to remove special interest money from campaigns and give new candidates better chances of beating entrenched, well- funded incumbents. It is also very popular with candidates from both major parties, and funded 80 percent of the races of legislators elected last year.
A key portion of the law, which allows candidates to receive additional “matching funds” to respond to attacks against them or in support of their opponent, has been declared unconstitutional.
Earlier this week, a legislative committee’s Republican majority voted to strike the matching funds provision from the law, while Democrats backed an option that lets candidates collect extra money in the form of $ 5 checks. The issue will go to the full Legislature in January.