The Maine Ethics Commission voted 3-2 to fine the assistant majority leader of the Maine Senate a total of $9,000 for failing to disclose using campaign funds, in some instances to provide short-term loans for a business he owns.
The vote by the commission follows a probe into Cushing’s finances that began in November of last year. The fine is lower than the one Cushing could have been assessed. Under Maine law, the Newport Republican could have been hit with a penalty of $105,000.
Ethics Commission staff recommended a lower penalty, between $11,000 and $16,500, because the violations did not appear to give him any electoral advantage and because he worked with ethics staff to properly file.
The five-member board split on the issue of lowering it further, but settled on $9,000.
Cushing was not fined for how he used campaign funds and a political action committee he controls, although he has previously acknowledged that the expenses are “not the best political optics.” Maine law allows legislators wide latitude in how they use campaign funds, although some states are stricter.
Cushing and his attorney, Josh Tardy, did not dispute the findings of the Ethics Commission investigation. However, they argued for a reduced penalty.
Some members of the five-member commission grilled Cushing about some of the transactions, including several short-term loans he provided to a business he owns and ones he received from family members. Some of the money loaned was returned to Cushing’s Respect Maine political action committee.
Commissioner Richard Nass said Cushing’s record keeping was “appalling,” but he argued for a reduced fine.
Nass is a Republican from Acton who once served as a staffer for the House Republican Office when Cushing was the assistant leader there. He said Cushing is a prolific fundraiser and recruiter of GOP candidates.
"He is very good at what he does and we owe him and I think the system owes him thanks for that, for all the years of work he’s done for this area," Nass said.
But Commissioner Meri Lowry, a Democrat, said Cushing showed "an overarching pattern of failure to disclose over a long period of time.”
Commissioner Meri Lowry took issue with Cushing’s statement that the disclosure rules were burdensome but necessary to avoid penalties. She said the penalties were in place because it’s in the public interest that candidates and legislators are transparent about their use of campaign funds.
Lowry also questioned why some of the late disclosures were aggregated and their purpose unknown.
“I’m also struck by the fact that some of the reports that were filed were so vague to the point of being hidden,” she said.
The probe was triggered by Cushing’s sister, Laura Cushing McIntyre, who has alleged in the separate lawsuit that her brother has transferred over $1 million from a family business to his political action committee and campaign committee. The ethics probe did not address McIntyre’s allegation, which is still being litigated in Penobscot County Superior Court.
This story has been clarified to remove the amount of financial activity Cushing did not disclose.