PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Ethics Commission on Wednesday proposed new campaign finance rules to close what they’ve termed the “house party loophole,” in response to a complaint against the state Senate campaign of Portland Democrat Ben Chipman.

In a separate 3-2 vote, divided on party lines, the commission opted not to reopen the complaint against Chipman, whose campaign sent out a mail invitation to about 5,000 addresses using about $1,800 not counted as contributions to his publicly financed campaign

The cost of those mailers did not count because they took the form of invitations to house parties supporting his candidacy.

Under current election law, a volunteer at such a house party can spend up to $250 for invitations or food and beverages and the campaign does not have to report it as a contribution.

Chipman said that kind of cost-sharing among volunteers for house parties is not new to Maine politics, with some coming together to support costs of a larger event space or catered parties.

“[Commission staff] know[s] that several candidates have done this from both parties and so this was not an outlier or an anomaly at all,” Chipman said. “This was no different than what’s been going on for quite a while now.”

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the ethics commission, told the Bangor Daily News that Chipman’s case was the first in which the invitations to house parties were sent out using a contractor, which is typical for other types of campaign ads.

Commissioner William Lee, a Democrat, said use of that rule to allow multiple people share costs for a districtwide mailer featuring the candidate “could end up being a loophole that you could drive a truck through, filled with money.”

Chipman said he came to commission staff before the house party events to seek confirmation the invitation expenses would be exempt, which they had confirmed. Lee said he would have given Chipman the same advice.

“Not because that’s the way it should be but because that’s the way it’s written,” Lee said.

The commission’s proposed rule would effectively limit exempt spending on such invitations to $250, specifying that costs for the invitations cannot be shared and “are exempt only if paid for by a single volunteer providing the real property for the event.”

The new rule would still allow multiple event volunteers to share the costs of food or beverages.

The specific complaint came as Chipman was up against the substantial fundraising effort of opponent Diane Russell, who spent about $90,000 in the Democratic primary for Senate District 27.

“We had no idea that we were being outspent,” Chipman said, adding he did not learn that Russell’s privately financed campaign had raised that amount until an early June report.

Chipman, running using the publicly financed Maine Clean Elections system, said the steep fundraising disadvantage was not a factor in deciding to have volunteers fund the mailer using the house party exemption. He said he supported any rule change that would clarify the exemption rules for candidates.

After the vote Wednesday, the commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed rule change in its offices at 45 Memorial Circle in Augusta on at 9 a.m. on Aug. 10. That could provide enough time for the commission to take a final vote on the rule during its meeting Aug. 31.

Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.