Did she jump or was she pushed?

Politics and other mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  August 2, 2007

There's stuff that's illegal, but not necessarily unethical: growing medical marijuana for cancer patients; reporters refusing to divulge their sources; drinking beer on the beach on a hot summer afternoon.

Then, there's stuff that's legal, but seems to be unethical, anyway: State Senator Ethan Strimling, of Portland, continuing to host a radio talk show, because he hasn't "officially" announced he's running for Congress; Jean Ginn Marvin conveniently forgetting to tell a legislative committee considering her nomination to — sound the irony alarm — the state ethics commission that she's a board member of the politically active Maine Heritage Policy Center; former independent candidate for governor Barbara Merrill concealing the fact that the single largest beneficiary of the more than $900,000 in public campaign funding she received last year was her husband.

Let's look at that one more closely.

This is the same Barbara Merrill who, in her book, Setting the Maine Course, wrote that her life's work had "taught me the merits of complete, direct and honest communication."

Except when it comes to hubby earning a living.

After then-state-rep Merrill quit the Democratic Party, in early 2006, to run for governor, spouse Phil gave up his job as a donkey-party hack (sort of like a lawyer, only more odious) to serve as the unpaid deputy treasurer of her campaign. Since B. Merrill had previously quit working as a lobbyist and closed her law practice, P. Merrill's exit from hackdom appeared to leave the family without visible means of support.

Somebody in the news media — me, for instance — should have paused in our noble pursuit of refusing to reveal our sources and practiced a little journalism by inquiring about that.

As it turned out, the Merrills had an income source that only came to light in a recent audit by the ethics-commission staff. Merrill, the candidate, had paid a company called Mountain Top Productions more than $211,000 to handle her advertising. More than half of that money, $109,427, was, according to the ethics staff's report, "apparently paid to Mr. Merrill," who comprised just about all of Mountain Top's employees (although his name never showed up on his wife's campaign finance reports).

Communications between Mountain Top and the Merrill campaign seem to have been somewhat informal. As a result, Merrill (the candidate one) neglected to properly document more than $110,000 in ad purchases. When the ethics-commission staff inquired about this discrepancy with Merrill (the ex-hack one) he assured them everything was swell. And he ought to know, having served as both treasurer and middle-man in those transactions.

In response to the report, Barbara Merrill wrote that she hired her husband as her media guru because he was "the only person available that fit the bill," by which she appears to mean he was willing to do the job for less money than another consultant she approached. Or maybe Maine was experiencing a shortage of political operatives. Although, you'd think the news media would've noticed that.

Hiring one's spouse isn't against the law. Maine's Clean Election Act allows candidates' ne'er-do-well relatives to work on publicly funded campaigns, and the legislature has ignored the ethics commission's recommendation to ban the practice. In his response to the audit, Phil Merrill wrote, "Given the undisputed fact that retention of a family member is clearly permitted by Maine law . . . I feel strongly that the criticism in this finding is unwarranted and patently unfair."

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