This piece first appeared in The Maine Wire
Often times you’re just a few clicks away from finding exactly what you’re looking for. That’s the position I found myself in when writing this column.
Last week, I provided commentary on the unethical spending of Rep. Diane Russell (D-Portland) who used her Working Families Leadership PAC to fund expensive trips to destinations like Las Vegas, always stopping for a bite to eat or a sip of coffee, while being shuttled around in “taxis” from Las Vegas Limousine, simultaneously paying herself with PAC funds to the tune of $7,741 for “online organizing.”
Unfortunately for her, Russell’s PAC has been drowning in controversy since its conception. She was fined $2,000 by Maine ethics regulators in December for omitting more than $1,200 in expenditures from a filing due in October of 2014. She was also late in returning Clean Elections funds back to the state and has paid out an additional $2,100 in fines for not filing other reports. The story broke by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting in early March detailing her unethical spending was the icing on the cake.
In writing my last column, I stumbled upon a great graphic of Russell, one that contends that she has no corporate sponsors and is not for sale, pictured below. This finding inspired an in-depth examination of exactly who her PAC contributors are.
The self-described “progressive champion” of Maine may want to backtrack on her “not for sale” narrative, or at least take steps to get the graphic off the internet altogether.
With a little research of my own, I’ve found that this graphic is indeed a load of phooey. That shouldn’t come as any surprise, as it’s never out of the ordinary for politicians to create campaign images that depict themselves in a light opposite of reality. Not only does Russell’s PAC have a wide-ranging slew of corporate donors, some of the contributions she’s accepted outright prove that she is, in fact, for sale.
Looking through filings that date back to May of 2013, Russell’s Working Families PAC has directly taken in approximately $4,400 from corporate sponsors and lobbyists. She’s also received a plethora of sizeable donations from the Beck Political Fund, which has national corporate sponsors including TMobile, the American Insurers Association, Churchill Downs, and corporate state sponsors like Maine Medical Association PAC, Fairpoint Communications and Maine Beer and Wine Wholesalers.
Interestingly enough, the Beck Political Fund made a $7,741 contribution to Russell’s PAC in October of last year, then were refunded that same amount. On the same day, Democrats.com contributed the same amount. Democrats.com is funded by a number of progressive corporate partners, including CREDO Mobile, one of the largest corporate sponsors to Planned Parenthood. The Beck Political Fund was terminated on Dec. 31 of 2015.
While some of her corporate sponsorships are disguised through contributions made by other PAC’s, others are as clear as day. In her most recent quarterly filings, Russell’s Working Families PAC took in $250 from Unum, $100 from Pierce Atwood and another $100 contribution from a Harness Racing Association lobbyist. A January filing from 2015 shows that Russell took in a whopping $2,500 from the Western Maine Realty group.
In 2014, it’s much of the same story. Russell received $200 more in contributions from a Harness Racing Association lobbyist, $250 from the Wellness Connection of Maine, and $500 from the Beer & Wine Distributors Association.
These donations have helped Russell build what she describes as a “progressive power machine,” or an expansive email list, which somehow fulfills her PAC’s mission statement to “support Democrats in winning seats in the Maine House.” It is important to note that only four percent of her expenditures, or $1,550, has actually been used in that regard.
Coincidently, the Working Families PAC has lost its traction amongst working families. In 2013, Russell’s PAC took in $14,497.40 in unitemized contributions, which are donations less than $50 and typically made by average citizens. The turmoil surrounding her PAC in 2014 and 2015 for omitting expenditures and failing to file paperwork, coupled with the uncovering of her disgraceful spending, hasn’t appealed to the Average Joe.
Recently, the vast majority of her PAC’s funding has come from corporate PACs and individual contributions over $50 by wealthy elites across the country. Her PAC filings in 2014 and 2015 yield little evidence of support from average people like they did at the PAC’s outset in 2013.
Perhaps the negative publicity surrounding Russell over the years has distanced working families from the Working Families PAC, like how Russell’s spending has distanced from her PAC’s purpose – a distance as far from the truth as the graphic above.