Ethics Staff Advises No Probe of Press Herald
Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, is advising his board members not to pursue an investigation of the Portland Press Herald for donating more than $46,000 in free advertising to a political campaign.
Wayne posted his staff recommendations on the commission’s Web site late in the day on Feb. 8.
Wayne came to his conclusion even though he noted that some of the Press Herald’s explanations “seem strained and should not be accepted by the Commission uncritically.”
In particular, Wayne rejected the newspaper’s claim that its contribution of six full-page ads to the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce to help a political action committee trying to create an elected mayor in Portland didn’t constitute a political donation. He was unconvinced by the paper’s argument that the ads were simply part of a sponsorship agreement between the Press Herald and the chamber, noting that the sponsorship cost $25,000, while the ads were worth over $46,000. Wayne said the newspaper received no additional benefit for the extra ads.
As for the paper’s claim that no value could be placed on the advertising, Wayne noted, “[O]n November 15, 2010, the marketing manager of the Press Herald calculated the fair-market value of the full-page advertisements ($46,507.74) and supplied that figure to the Regional Chamber, which had requested it.”
Wayne was also unmoved by the Press Herald’s claim that it was exempt from campaign finance laws under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. “Giving away free advertising to a candidate or advocate for a referendum is not a traditional function of the press,” he wrote, “at least not since the inception of modern campaign finance laws in the 1970s.” State law also exempts newspapers’ editorial content from reporting requirements, but says nothing about ads.
He also noted that “the Press Herald’s constitutional arguments are too broadly stated to be supported by case law interpreting the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
In spite of rejecting many of the paper’s arguments, Wayne said the ethical issue of whether a news media outlet making donations to a political cause “is consistent with news consumers’ expectations of a traditional news outlet” is outside the commission’s jurisdiction.
He also found that the paper didn’t violate the rules by failing to disclose its donation, since it was reasonable for it to assume that would be handled by the chamber or the pro-elected mayor PAC and, in fact, it was. Wayne said the Press Herald didn’t qualify as a “ballot question committee” (a PAC-like entity that makes substantial contributions to a cause) because its contribution to the chamber wasn’t necessarily intended to advance the elected-mayor campaign.
“[T]he Press Herald has identified an equally plausible alternative purpose,” Wayne wrote, “assisting a business partner (the Regional Chamber) in expressing to the public its view on an important matter of public policy.”
The ethics commission is scheduled to meet on Feb. 17. Its members can accept Wayne’s recommendation, which is likely and would bring the matter to an end, or request further investigation.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.