This article first appeared in The Maine Wire.
In the past, I’ve written about the Maine version of the Hillary Victory Fund (HVF), a joint fundraising committee established to raise money for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and Maine’s Democratic Party. Maine’s HVF took in thousands of dollars in donations from wealthy, out-of-state donors and funneled them back to the DNC and into her campaign, side-stepping laws associated with individual campaign contribution limitations.
Now, a prominent liberal politician from Portland has been caught using her leadership PAC to finance coffee shop meetings, lavish trips across the country and overseas, and to pay herself a whopping $7,747 of the PAC’s $39,583 total expenditures.
The mission statement of Rep. Diane Russell’s “Working Families PAC” is to “support Democrats in winning seats in the Maine House,” according to the candidate and committee information provided by the Maine Ethics Commission website.
However, the PAC has only given $1,550 to Democratic candidates and organizations in Maine. In total, only four percent of the PAC’s expenditures have supported Democrats in Maine. Roughly 20 percent has gone straight to Russell’s pocket for “online organizing” or for travel, tips and food.
Pine Tree Watchdog, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting’s online publication, first broke the story in early March, asking Russell how her PAC’s spending fulfilled its mission as outlined on the ethics commission’s website.
What was Russell’s response? “Oh, is that the mission statement of the PAC? I haven’t changed it?” – a quote that speaks volumes of Russell’s morals and character as an elected official.
Between 2013 and 2015, Russell’s PAC expenditures included $3,507 for food and $5,754 in travel expenses to San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Morocco. The PAC’s filings also detailed three payments for a New York Times subscription, 12 payments to Virgin Mobile for phone bills, and $1,650 for “equipment” at the Apple Store in the Maine Mall.
When Pine Tree Watchdog writer Naomi Schalit questioned Russell on how these expenses advanced her PAC’s mission, Russell defensively replied, “Is it specific to the Maine House? No, but it has a lot to do with elevating the dialogue and making sure I understand how to help women get elected.”
Russell contends and gloats that her questionable spending helps fuel a “progressive power machine” that is unparallel to what her colleagues and counterparts in the Maine Legislature have established themselves.
“I have a pretty sizeable email list nationwide,” Russell told Schalit. “I use that often to help people battling progressive battles either locally or nationally. No one in the state has built what I have built, very few lawmakers in the country have built what I have built – it is a progressive power machine and I am more than happy to turn it on.”
Clearly, the Working Families PAC was established to meet Russell’s needs, not the needs of working Maine families.
Leadership PACs are established by current members of the legislature who aspire to hold a leadership position in the House or Senate. Several other members of the Maine Legislature operate leadership PACs as well, however Russell is the only one (at least recently) to pay herself directly with funds from her PAC. If the Working Families PAC’s spending is reflective of Russell’s future political aspirations, or is intended to vault her into a leadership role in the Maine Legislature, she may want to tone down the fraudulent political fandango.
Does Russell really think the citizens of Maine will buy her story? I feel for the many left-leaning supporters who donated to this PAC, thinking their money would be spent to further the political goals that they believe in, when instead Russell was siphoning off PAC funds for her own personal gain.
Perhaps Russell is unacquainted with the harsh reality that many struggling, working families in Maine face on a daily basis. Not only is her PAC’s title an obvious misnomer used to wrongly influence Mainers, but it is evident from these findings that Russell is using money from her organization to finance her opulent lifestyle choices. If Russell cared one single ounce for working Maine families, she wouldn’t have established a faux organization to line her own pockets.
The worst aspect of this controversy is that there are essentially no limitations to what PACs can spend their money on in Maine, and Russell’s poor judgment in spending is exactly why average citizens distance themselves from politics. Too often do working class families foot the bill for legislators like Russell to live the high life while simultaneously hiding behind imitation political organizations supposedly intended to promote the interests of average citizens.
Not only should sitting legislators have no business in operating a PAC, they should certainly be barred from paying themselves for operating one. Perhaps new laws could address this issue before Russell’s unhealthy infatuation with her “progressive power machine” forces her out of office.