Pingree’s take tops $1 million, but at what cost?
Rivals in Congressional race raising more questions
By Chris Busby
During her years heading the citizen activist group Common Cause, Chellie Pingree made a name for herself by railing against the influence of big money in politics. But now that she’s seeking a seat in Congress, Pingree has shown that she has no problem cashing big checks from sources with questionable political motives.
The latest quarterly campaign finance reports show that Pingree’s take has now topped $1 million. At $1,122,235, she has more than twice as much money as her nearest Democratic rival, State Sen. Ethan Strimling, whose total now stands at just over $500,000.
Last month, The Bollard reported that Pingree had raked in nearly $60,000 from people associated with Paloma Partners, a hedge fund headquartered in the Virgin Islands. Further digging by Strimling’s campaign has revealed that Pingree’s haul from Paloma and companies associated with its lead partner, S. Donald Sussman, exceeds $100,000.
For example, Sussman has a controlling interest in the Deleware-based financial company Caremi Partners. Four people associated with Caremi have contributed a total of $9,600 to Pingree, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
And when Sussman recently attempted to contribute $250 to Strimling’s campaign online using a variation of his common name, his e-mail and address were those of Hewlett Bay Associates, a financial services company in Rye Brook, NY. Hewlett Bay partner Eric Gany gave Pingree $4,600 last September, and a couple weeks later, Nancy Gany, an unemployed person who lives with Eric Gany in Wilton, Conn., also gave Pingree $4,600, the maximum allowed by law.
Pingree’s windfall from Paloma raised eyebrows last month; this month, another bundle of cash is raising questions about Pingree’s integrity.
On March 20, the latest FEC filings show that Pingree received a total of $55,750 from attorneys (and spouses of attorneys) and other employees of Milberg, formerly Milberg Weiss, a law firm based in New York City.
In 2006, the federal government indicted the firm on charges of fraud and bribery, alleging that it ran a “racketeering enterprise” by which secret kickbacks were paid to plaintiffs in shareholder class-action lawsuits. Four top attorneys at the firm have pleaded guilty so far (including Melvyn Weiss, whose name was dropped from the firm’s moniker last month), as have three former clients. Prosecutors allege that the kickback scheme went on for over 25 years, involved over 225 lawsuits and over $200 million in tainted legal fees, Reuters reported.
The New York Times reported last fall that federal authorities have also “investigated accusations that the firm funneled campaign contributions through plaintiffs and expert witnesses” last decade. No charges related to those accusations have been filed at this time.
The same Times article notes that Milberg is a major donor to Democratic candidates and causes (members of the firm ponied up half a million dollars for the new Democratic National Committee headquarters), and the firm’s lawyers have continued to contribute to Dems even while their employer is under a legal cloud. [See “Accused Law Firm Continues Giving to Democrats,” Oct. 18, 2007,The New York Times]. None of the Milberg lawyers who have pleaded guilty so far have personally contributed to Pingree’s current campaign.
“The reluctance of Democrats to shut off the cash spigot, even in the face of scandal, underscores how the pressure to raise money creates marriages of political interests that can be difficult to break up,” wrote Times reporter Mike McIntire. Republicans have long complained that Milberg’s contributions to Democratic lawmakers (over $7 million since the 1980s, according to the Times) have bought them the support of Dems who consistently block Republican efforts to limit shareholder class-action suits.
Republican Congressional candidate Dean Scontras said he would not have accepted bundled contributions from a firm like Milberg. Pingree’s acceptance of large sums from out-of-state interests is “the sort of thing people have become disgusted with,” he said.
But it’s Strimling, a fellow Democrat, who’s been the loudest critic of Pingree’s cash grab.
Pingree has said the money from Paloma will not influence her should she be elected. In an April 22 press release, Strimling charged that his rival has changed her views on the corrupting influence of big money since she’s gone from Common Cause to the campaign trail.
“After years of charging that Congress is under the thumb of special interests and large campaign contributors which results in failed economic and social policies, as a candidate she now says they have no influence,” Strimling said in the press release. “The problem is, almost every candidate who runs for Congress and takes big special interest money says, ‘Oh don’t worry, it won’t affect my vote, it’s all the other candidates who take big money who are the problem.’ This is a recipe for the status quo. This [is] how we get tax laws that favor the wealthy and are paid for by the middle class. This is why we have bad environmental laws and why we don’t have universal health care.”
Pingree’s communications director, Willy Ritch, said he was unaware that Sussman and his related companies had given Pingree over $100,000. “We don’t know what every donor’s relationship is with other people,” he said. “We don’t track that stuff down.”
Asked if there was a limit to the amount of money Pingree is willing to accept from Sussman associates, Ritch said, “I don’t know the answer to that.”
Ritch said he was similarly in the dark about Milberg – a remarkable admission, given the amount of money the firm’s associates gave his boss on a single day.
The Bollard e-mailed Ritch a copy of McIntire’s story, and agreed to postpone the deadline for this article to noon today to give the campaign time to respond.
Ritch did not respond before noon today.
Who you callin’ compromised, Ethan?
The campaigns of other Democrats seeking the 1st District Congressional seat long held by Democratic Rep. Tom Allen have been less inclined to criticize Pingree’s fundraising sources. Adam Cote’s campaign, for example, declined comment. (Cote’s fundraising total now stands at $464,952.)
Marc Mallon, the political director of Mark Lawrence’s campaign, said, “we really think that it’s sort of a waste of time to be busy pointing fingers at each other” over contributions. He added, however, that Lawrence, the York County District Attorney, “tries to the best of his ability to be sure [his contributions] are coming from a source that’s ethical.” (Lawrence’s total: $416,438.)
Former State Sen. Michael Brennan is fifth in the fundraising race among the six Dems vying to win the party’s June 10 primary. (Brennan has raised $211,510 so far; Steve Meister trails the pack with just $88,850.) He’s been critical of Pingree’s fundraising, but is also critical of Strimling’s complaints about Pingree’s campaign practices.
“If I had been in Chellie’s situation, I wouldn’t have accepted the hedge fund money,” Brennan said. “But I found it ironic that Ethan is raising that issue. He’s taken money from a number of interests and groups that have had issues before the Legislature currently or in the past. Whether or not there’s a conflict of interest or an appearance of conflict of interest, certainly the questions are raised.”
Brennan cited several matters he believes create at least the appearance of a conflict of interest for Strimling. Among them…
• Strimling’s support two years ago of a tax break that exclusively benefits L.L. Bean, and his criticism of a proposed sales-tax exception for Bean competitor Cabela’s. Strimling has received contributions from Bean executives for his Congressional run.
• Strimling’s unwillingness to support a bill earlier this year that would have allowed the city of Portland to lease the Maine State Pier to The Olympia Companies for longer than 30 years – an exception to current state law that Olympia said was crucial to its ability to finance its project. The bill died when a legislative committee unanimously opposed it. Strimling has received contributions from executives of Ocean Properties, the developer that lost its bid to redevelop the pier to Olympia and hopes to be chosen for the job if Olympia’s bid fails.
• Strimling’s support for a budget measure this year that uses money from a state fund for affordable housing to finance tax credits for developments that constitute historic preservation. Among the developers who stand to benefit from the tax credits is Bobby Monks, who is personally involved in Strimling’s campaign and whose family members have contributed to Strimling.
Brennan said that if Strimling had left his state senate seat before beginning his Congressional campaign, as he himself did, then such potential conflicts could be avoided. “Chellie may be taking money from places that are questionable, but she’s not currently in office,” he said. “One of the reasons I stepped down from the state senate was not wanting to have those conflicts, or appearance of conflicts of interest.”
Strimling defended his support for the historic preservation credits. “I’m very pleased with my vote on that,” he said. He added that he believes the credits will result in the development of affordable housing in historic urban buildings, and will enlist historic preservationists in the ongoing effort to keep the state’s affordable housing fund intact in future years (state lawmakers routinely raid the fund for other budgetary needs).
Babs vs. Glenn
On a lighter note, the most recent campaign finance filings show that this little race in Maine is attracting the attention of politically active celebrities.
Pingree has received cash from Barbra Streisand ($1,000) and Bonnie Raitt ($250), as well as from actress and writer Beth Broderick ($250), whose on-screen credits include 2000’s Psycho Beach Party and, more recently, several episodes of Lost (she plays Diane Jansen, Kate’s mom). Broderick’s writing partner is a man named Dennis Bailey (no relation to Strimling’s public relations guy).
Cote recently received $1,000 from TV political commentator and best-selling author Paul Begala. Actress Glenn Close gave Cote $2,300 last month from her home in New Canaan, Conn. Her boyfriend, Idexx founder David Shaw, chipped in $2,000.
Among local celebrities on the latest list, Bayside baron Ross Furman is backing Brennan to the tune of $2,300 (Furman has also provided The Bollard with financial support last year). Brennan also has the support of peace activist and former U.S. Senate candidate Bill Slavik ($400). Former Portland City Councilor Donna Carr is in Strimling’s corner ($250).
Lastly, we reported last month that Dexter Kamilewicz is running as an independent for this Congressional seat, and has the support of several fairly well-known local figures, including Portland City Councilor Kevin Donoghue.
Donoghue said he is not formally endorsing a candidate at this time, and suggested his appearance on a list of supporters posted on Kamilewicz’s Web site was a holdover from the candidate’s Congressional run two years ago.
Indeed, though Kamilewicz has maintained that site (dexterforcongress.com), there is no indication it has been updated since his last run. Kamilewicz is listed by the Federal Election Commission as an active candidate who submitted an updated finance report this spring – showing a total of $35 cash-in-hand. He did not return a call seeking comment.