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Sara Gideon could face steep penalties for four violations of federal “straw donor” laws

Maine House Speaker and lawyer Rep. Sara Gideon (D – Freeport). Photo courtesy Speaker Sara Gideon Twitter.

WASHINGTON D.C. – Under 52 U.S.C. § 30122(d)(1)(A)(i), a person violating straw donor laws aggregating more than $2,000 in a calendar year can face up to one year in jail and steep fines. A straw donation occurs when a source that is forbidden to make a contribution to a federal candidate or committee reimburses or uses an intermediary, or straw, donor, to circumvent federal law. Steep fines are also laid out in federal law.

On Wednesday, July 31, the Washington Free Beacon reported that Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon had apparently violated federal straw donor laws by funneling more than $2,750 in federal contributions from her corporate-funded state leadership PAC to Congressional candidate Emily Cain and the Maine Democratic Party. Three of those contributions, in a sum total of $2,250, were recorded between September 30, 2015 and July 25, 2016.

In the scheme, Gideon would make the contributions, then reimburse herself from her leadership PAC, which is well documented to have received donations from corporate and special interests that are forbidden to make contributions to federal campaigns. That amounts to four counts of illegal straw donations and violates federal restrictions on funneling corporate money into federal elections.

Shortly after the story broke, Gideon’s campaign admitted the violations and blamed the issue on “incorrect guidance” for processing the contributions. That excuse didn’t sit well with many observers on the left or right.

Gideon’s opponents, Betsy Sweet and Bre Kidman, both issued statements.

“For me, getting money out of politics isn’t just a campaign slogan,” Sweet was quoted in the Washington Free Beacon.

Kidman told the Free Beacon that she was, “Hopeful that Maine will remember that we don’t have to tolerate this. We have to set firm ethical expectations if we want better representation.”

On Twitter, many questioned Gideon’s credibility in her claim that she received incorrect guidance.

As Speaker of the Maine House and a four-term state representative, Gideon has actually negotiated bills that relate to campaign finance and has run twice under the Maine Clean Elections Act, which also has a prohibition on straw donations and requires all donations be made from an individual’s personal funds.

Gideon has also twice run as a privately financed candidate for the Maine House, and in those races faced the same prohibition on straw donations.

Gideons switch to privately funded campaigns appears to have risen at the same time state law changed to forbid “Clean Elections” candidates from running Maine “Leadership PAC” entities, which can accept unlimited contributions from unions, corporations and special interest groups.

As such, it would appear that Sara Gideon must have been aware of restrictions on straw donations since her first run for office in 2012.

Further, Gideon’s actual U.S. Senate website contains a disclaimer that requires a donor to affirm that “This contribution is made from my own funds, and funds are not being provided to me by another person or entity for the purpose of making this contribution.”

The Free Beacon quoted veteran campaign finance attorney Cleta Mitchell saying that, “Contributions in the name of another is probably the number one worst campaign finance violation under federal law.”

On Monday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee called on Gideon to release the alleged guidance she received, asking who issued it and why it allowed corporate money to be given to a federal candidate.

“Shady Sara Gideon must release the ‘incorrect guidance’ she received that told her to break federal election laws,” said NRSC spokesperson Nathan Brand. “Mainers can’t trust a shady politician hiding her reasons for breaking federal laws, all while trying to give away Maine’s voice to the liberals in Washington.”

Other political figures that readers may recognize for violating illegal straw donation laws include Michael Hein, a Maine House candidate who was sentenced to seven days in jail for 15 straw donations of $5 each in 2015. Those donations, while more in number, were a far smaller sum than Gideon’s $2,700 in straw donations.

Author Dinesh D’Souza was sentenced to 8 months in a “community confinement center” for a single straw donation in a U.S. Senate race in 2014.

In 2015, Diana Durand was sentenced to three months in prison and a year of probation despite federal prosecutors not seeking any jail time as part of a plea deal. Durand entered a guilty plea to just one of three counts of illegal straw donations to the campaign of Michael Grimm, a member of Congress.

While Durand’s violation involved a donation of a larger amount than Gideon’s admitted violations, she also held no official political office or title and was described in some news reports as either a “single mother” or a romantic interest of Rep. Grimm. Still, a judge had little mercy in sentencing Durand to jail time.

A publication provided by the Federal Election Commission explains that penalties may be harsher, or “enhancements” may be used for violators with special skill or familiarity with campaign finance law.

Gideon, for her part, has clung to her argument that she received incorrect guidance on the process. She has so far refused to release information on where that alleged incorrect guidance came from, essentially ignoring all inquiries and requests for the guidance she is blaming for the violations.

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