Nichi Farnham must explain her role in PAC supporting her re-election

State Senator Nichi Farnham, a Republican representing Bangor, has some serious questions to answer about her role in a political action committee that has spent big in her re-election campaign.

Last week, the Maine Democratic Party filed a serious ethics complaint against Farnham, saying that she had violated election law.

The complaint stems from the dual role that Farnham plays as both a publicly financed, Clean Election Act candidate for the state Senate and her possible role as the principal officer, primary fundraiser and decision maker for a political action committee.

In return for receiving public financing, Clean Election Act candidates cannot solicit or accept contributions to their campaign, and they cannot coordinate with PACs that make expenditures on their behalf.

Farnham’s PAC, the Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC, reported spending nearly $73,000 against her general election opponent, Democrat Geoffrey Gratwick.

Farnham and James Cote, the political consultant who works with the PAC, both maintain that Farnham is no longer affiliated with the Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC.

“I haven’t been involved because I knew I wouldn’t have time,” Farnham told Bangor Daily News reporter Matt Stone last week. “I told them early on I certainly wouldn’t be available to make decisions like that.”

Cote blamed an administrative oversight for the fact that Farnham was still listed as an officer on the PAC.

Farnham further told that paper that she agreed to be listed temporarily as a principal officer, but that she never intended to be involved with the committee during the election season, and she said she wasn’t aware of the ad buy targeting Gratwick.

The Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC was original registered with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices in 2008. At the time, Republican state Sens. Kevin Raye and Jonathan Courtney – now both candidates for Congress in Maine – were listed as the principal officers.

Offer the next four years, the registration shifted first to Sens. Debra Plowman and Courtney in 2010 and then to Farnham and state Sen. Thomas Saviello earlier this year.

Today, the report has been amended to list only Saviello, but until recently it listed both Saviello and Farnham.

Giving Cote and Farnham the benefit of the doubt, sometime after March, her name, but for an administrative error, should have been removed from the PAC.

But there are at least a couple of data points that suggest she was active beyond March.

For example, the Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC had a small run-in with the ethics commission in June of this year. The PAC failed to file a 24-hour pre-primary report and faced a fine.

PAC Treasurer Sara Vanderwood responded to the Ethics Commission. On her response, she copied both Saviello and Farnham, suggesting that at least at that point both were still considered decision makers for the PAC by its treasurer.

The Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC is a major fundraising instrument for the GOP in Maine. For the period between July 19 and Sept. 30, the PAC reported raising more than $314,000.

The largest contributor was the Republican State Leadership Committee-Maine PAC, which gave $220,000. The rest of the money came from businesses, lobbyist, other PACs and Republican lawmakers.

Only four individuals are listed on the report as making contributions: Robert Bahre of Alton, N.H., gave $250; Lincoln Merrill Jr. of North Yarmouth gave $200; Michael O’Brien of Cape Elizabeth gave $150. And, on Aug. 31, Doug Farnham, Nichi Farnham’s husband, gave $1,000.

The fact that Doug Farnham contributed $1,000 doesn’t prove that she was still making decisions in regards to the PACs affairs.

But, like the paperwork from June, it does raise significant questions about Nichi Farnham’s role in both raising money and making decisions on how it was spent.

Farnham’s seat is critical for both Democrats and Republicans as they fight for control of the Maine Senate. In 2010, in a tidal-wave Republican year, Farnham ousted incumbent Democrat Joe Perry by 12 points.

But the Bangor seat is competitive, and historically Democrats have held the advantage.

The stakes are high. And both parties are playing hardball for a chance to win there, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Perhaps, as Farnham claims, her involvement with the Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC ended before it decided to spend more than $72,000 on her behalf while she was accepting public financing to run her campaign.

But voters deserve to know for sure, and that means that there are a lot more questions that need to be asked.

As Ricky Ricardo used to tell Lucy, Nichi “you got some ‘splainin’ to do.”