On April 18th, the Livable Portland Campaign, of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), sent a letter to the City Clerk. The Portland Townsman also received a copy of the letter. This letter contained accusations of serious malfeasance on the parts of Northern Light Health, the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine (RHA), and the political committee “Enough is Enough” (EiE). The letter can be found in full here.
Despite the powerful allegations made against these organizations, the DSA provided very little evidence, and their theory of events is very likely false. What follows is an account of the Townsman’s investigation into the matter.
To briefly introduce the cast of characters, the Maine DSA is the state chapter of a nationwide socialist organization; this chapter is primarily focused on reforming local laws in Portland, Maine’s largest city. The Livable Portland Campaign is an organ of the DSA originally formed to advocate for four referenda in 2022, not to be confused with the recently-renamed urbanist group which formerly used the name “Livable Portland.”
Northern Light Health is the parent company of several medical institutions in southern Maine, including Mercy Hospital.
The RHA is an industry advocacy group for rental housing providers, or landlords. They are sponsoring a referendum, via the Committee to Improve Rent Control (CIRC), to amend the rent control ordinance this June. While distinct legal entities, the RHA and the CIRC substantially overlap and are often treated by those outside the two entities as deeply linked, similar to the DSA and the Livable Portland Campaign.
EiE is a political committee formed in 2022 with the express intention of opposing all ballot referenda and advocating for referendum reform, with the belief that referenda were proving to be harmful to good government. Hence the name: “Enough is Enough.”
The Major Allegation
The letter contains one major allegation, and two minor ones. The first, major accusation (herein “Allegation #1”) leveled by the DSA can be summarized as follows:
In surveying the most recent quarterly reports made by EiE and the CIRC for April 2023, something weird happened. $10,000 was donated to EiE by Northern Light Health on January 24th, despite EiE not engaging in any political activity that quarter. And EiE refunded $10,000 to the RHA on February 16th. Such large refunds are, purportedly, unusual. The RHA then gave money to the CIRC on February 9th to support the June referendum campaign. The natural conclusion is that these two $10,000 figures are actually part of one transaction, that Northern Light Health intended this money to be funneled towards the RHA to support the June referendum. Northern Light must not have wanted to stain their reputation by donating directly to a landlord group. This is illegal, and the city should investigate.
The DSA did not suggest one definite explanation for how this connivance came to pass – they suggested three possibilities, each one rebalancing culpability and initiative between the three involved parties. But in all three, the thrust is the same: Northern Light Health is supporting the RHA by illegal means.
The DSA did not provide for any possibility in which at least one of the three parties, (Northern Light, the RHA, or EiE,) was not guilty of illegal activity. In the letter, the DSA is confident that illegal activity has taken place.
The question is then, is it likely (or even plausible) that money is being illicitly funneled through Enough is Enough to fund the RHA’s Committee to Improve Rent Control?
The Minor Allegations
Beyond this accusation of conspiracy to commit election fraud, the DSA also made two lesser accusations against the CIRC, suggesting a more routine habit of malfeasance (or at least sloppy bookkeeping.)
The first of these, (herein “Allegation #2”,) is that nearly all of the reported donors to the CIRC lack the required “Occupation and Employer” information, with only a note that the CIRC has requested this information. See below for an example of this:
For individuals donating to political committees, it is required that they provide their occupation and employer with their donation. Yet for all but one of the individuals who donated, this information was not collected at the point of donation.
The DSA’s letter freely acknowledges that this is, by itself, not illegal. If this information isn’t captured at the point of donation, it can be requested after the fact with the proper notation. Nevertheless, the DSA points out that the sheer number of “Requested Information” notes is suspicious, and could be covering up some other irregularity, or at least, obscuring the nature of those who are donating to this cause.
The question is, then, is there a suitable explanation for why this donor information was not adequately captured?
The final accusation, (herein “Allegation #3”), is posed as two separate matters in the DSA letter, but amounts to a single thrust. In the CIRC’s report, they claimed to raise $46,437.33 in donations, but their total expenditures + on-hand cash add up to $48,437.33. There’s an apparent discrepancy of $2,000 that seems to appear from nowhere.
Is this simply a bookkeeping error, or was a donation source unrecorded?
Updates Since the Letter
In the time that has passed since the letter was first sent, there have been a number of updates to the situation, especially regarding the minor allegations, #2 and #3.
Settling Allegation #2
The CIRC has provided an updated Campaign Finance Report to the city with nearly all of the donors’ employment information now stated. It would appear as though DSA member Tzara Kane’s suspicion that the CIRC “wasn’t requesting much” in the way of information was largely unfounded. Allegation #2, therefore, has been essentially settled. Still, the DSA, per an interview with a representative, feels vindicated in that a majority of the donors to the campaign work as realtors, landlords, or elsewhere in the field of real estate. This information may have been withheld to obscure the nature of the committee from voters.
That does leave the question: Why was this information not captured in the first place? In an interview with RHA President Brit Vitalius, he shed some light on the situation. According to Vitalius, when the committee was first established, people who wanted to donate were directed to a PayPal-powered donations portal on the internet. Not expecting many donations at first, this portal was not properly set up, and notably did not ask for the information in question. Sloppy, but a comprehensible foible. This has, according to Vitalius, now been addressed, and shouldn’t pose any further problems.
Settling Allegation #3
The CIRC’s updated report also provides an answer to Allegation #3. The correct figure was in fact $46,437.33, and the mysterious $2,000 do not actually exist. According to Vitalius, he stated that this was a simple typo.
Still Unsettled – Allegation #1
The minor allegations, however, are just that: minor. The most serious accusation leveled by the DSA was against a conspiracy between Northern Light Health, the RHA, and Enough is Enough to obscure the source of a $10,000 donation to the CIRC. To this, no evident solution in any updated reports is obvious. So, the investigation continues, now stripped to Allegation #1.
Examining the Allegation
As with all things related to election finance, the number of players and nature of interlinked contributions can be somewhat daunting, but the crux of the controversy is fairly simple.
Correction 5/4/23 2:28 PM - A previous version of this article stated that the RHA donated $10,000 to the CIRC this quarter, when in fact only $5,000 had been so donated
The DSA has observed these facts. In the first quarter of 2023:
- Northern Light Health donated $10,000 to Enough is Enough
- Enough is Enough was not engaged in any political activity, following the 2022 elections
- Enough is Enough refunded $10,000 to the RHA
- The RHA donated $10,000 to the CIRC
Each of these has been independently verified by the Townsman. None of these facts, by themselves, suppose any wrongdoing. But there’s a question to be asked:
The DSA alleges that facts 1 and 3 are, in reality, linked. That by some mechanism Northern Light Health donated $10k with the intention that the money would end up with the CIRC. Regarding the questions of exactly who, among these groups, knew what when, and who is primarily to blame, the DSA does not come to a single conclusion. But in the letter sent to city hall, the DSA is sure that someone committed an illegal act. They allow for no alternative possibility.
But are they correct?
While the DSA is sure to leave a good deal open to investigation, they assume one fact to be true which is not proven.
5. The RHA and/or Northern Light Health were aware of the other’s activity.
This fifth fact is essential to demonstrating any malfeasance, and the DSA’s letter assumes it to be prima facie obvious. But this is not so. The DSA provides no evidence that either of these two parties had any conception of the other’s financial activity. Without this evidence, we have three entities each performing a (seemingly) legal act: Northern Light donating to a political group, EiE complying with a refund request, and the RHA requesting a refund and donating to a different political group.
Could it be that simple? If it could be, then surely the DSA (assuming good faith) must have had some reason for making such strong allegations against these groups. And there are two oddities which give their claims plausibility.
The DSA’s allegations hinge on two unusual observations:
• A – The amount donated and the amount refunded both, coincidentally(?), are $10,000
• B – Northern Light Health is donating to a dormant political committee for no obvious reason
The DSA has not proven their case, (nor do they claim to have done so,) but to dismiss their claims, one would need to provide adequate responses to these two observations. While “A” could possibly be chalked up to a coincidence, “B” is trickier.
EiE was established in 2022 with the express intention of opposing all referenda in the November election. While it has had some inclination towards impacting broader referendum reform, this has not materialized in any concrete actions on the part of the committee. While it hasn’t been disbanded, and may rise to oppose future referenda, most have assumed that it has gone dormant now that its raison d’être has come and gone.
Yet, if that was so, why would Northern Light Health be donating to it? Do they know something the rest of us don’t? This is, perhaps, the single most crucial question in investigating the DSA’s claim.
A further problem for the DSA’s allegation, however, is motive. Why would Northern Light Health, a medical care company, be willing to skirt election laws to fund a rent control amendment campaign? There’s no clear connection between running a hospital and the rent control ordinance, certainly not to justify a $10,000 donation.
A clearer motive, however, emerges to explain why Northern Light might donate to oppose the 2022 referenda, which included a large raise to the minimum wage. While Northern Light doesn’t rent out apartments, it does hire a lot of low-to-medium wage workers. An increase to the minimum wage could potentially increase their labor costs by a wide margin, certainly more than $10,000. This would explain the donation to Enough is Enough.
UPDATE 5/3/23 4:28 PM - After the publication of this article, Vice President Ed Gilman of Northern Light Health reached out to contest this suggestion. According to Gilman, the donation was made in objection to "the overuse of referendum questions to govern. It was not due to any one particular issue that was on the ballot."
But if that’s the case, why wait until Q1 2023 to do it? The election is over, after all, and the minimum wage hike was defeated. Of the referenda, only Question C (itself an amendment to rent control) passed. So, while the DSA’s claim continues to seem somewhat farfetched, we still don’t have enough information to reject it.
To gather more information, The Portland Townsman reached out to the RHA, EiE, and Northern Light Health. The first to respond was Brit Vitalius, President of the RHA.
Testimony from the RHA
I spoke to Brit Vitalius, who categorically denies these accusations as far as concerns the Rental Housing Alliance. Vitalius’ responses to the minor allegations were detailed earlier, and amount to explanation of clerical errors that have since been corrected.
With regards to the main allegation, Vitalius contests that neither he nor anyone else at the RHA is aware of any relevant connection to Northern Light Health, nor does he have any idea why Northern Light Health would be interested in donating to a political committee concerned with rental housing.
He claims that in the leadup to the 2022 election season, the RHA (then the “SMLA”) donated $15,000 to the EiE campaign, (this has been independently verified by the Townsman, see page 123 here) of which $5,000 was used. The RHA, according to Vitalius, requested the remaining $10,000 be refunded, and as we see, EiE complied.
An Uneven Victory
While Vitalius did not say one way or another, one reason that the RHA may have for wanting a refund from Enough is Enough is that landlords who donated may feel uniquely burned. While the anti-referendum campaign was overall successful (4 out of 5 referenda were defeated) the one referendum which passed, Question C, impacts landlords specifically.
The following is speculative. But unlike employers of minimum-wage workers, AirBNB owners, or cruise ship supporters – all of whom saw their respective bugbears defeated at the ballot box – rental housing providers became subject to new, stricter rent control laws. One can imagine such people and businesses, who make up the RHA, feeling rather lonely among the other donors to EiE. Possibly, even, feeling a little cheated. A cruise ship ban or minimum wage hike would have been largely neutral to landlords, and a ban on AirBNBs may have even been a boon to long-term residential rental providers. But these failed, while one of the strictest rent control ordinances in the country succeeded.
This is also surely a contributing factor to why the RHA is seeking redress at the ballot box this June, which provides yet further motive for seeking a refund. The RHA is supporting a referendum campaign, a costly affair, and wants all the money it can get for doing so. Seeking back money from a bad investment, EiE, may be an obvious place to start.
A Plausible Alibi
In short, Vitalius’ statements provide a categorical denial of that crucial 5th fact – knowledge of Northern Light’s actions – and the RHA’s position in the current political atmosphere provides a solid motive for requesting a refund from EiE. While it is always possible that Vitalius is simply lying, the benefits to doing so seem slim, and while interviewing him I had no such suspicions.
Still, the DSA’s letter provides for the possibility that the RHA may be an innocent actor in this, and that the real conspiracy exists between EiE and Northern Light. Fortunately, Northern Light soon also returned our call.
Testimony from Northern Light Health
After a series of being bounced around the corporate structure of Northern Light Health, (thank you to Suzanne Spruce for your assistance,) I eventually connected with Edward Gilman, Assistant Vice President of Northern Light Health in charge of Communications, Marketing, and Government Affairs. In light of Vitalius’ statements, I had two major questions.
First, was there any merit to the allegation that Northern Light Health gave money to “Enough is Enough” with the intention that it would then be given to the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine?
Ed responded with a single word – “No.”
I didn’t expect him to say otherwise. That left the second, subtler question. Why, then, did Northern Light donate $10,000 to EiE in January? It was too late to impact the November election, and seemed too early to be about a possible 2023 election. So why?
Gilman testified that Northern Light Health had “agreed” to donate $10,000 to EiE prior to the election, but that “the check didn’t end up getting mailed until later in November.” Northern Light is a large corporation, and anyone who has worked in such an environment knows that sometimes resources moving through the pipes can take time, so this doesn’t strike me as a suspicious answer.
It seems, then, we have something resembling a response to anomaly “B” from earlier: Northern Light’s apparently post-election donation was actually just fulfilling a pre-election pledge.
UPDATE 5/3/23 4:28 PM - In response to a request for further documentation, Vice President Ed Gilman of Northern Light Health supplied the below invoice, dated 10/14/2022, in the amount of $10,000 to EiE. This further corroborates their narrative of events.
A Lingering Issue
However, if the check was mailed “later in November” (let’s assume the 30th) that still leaves almost two months between its mailing date and EiE’s reported date of receipt: January 24th. If we assume especially slow mailing time and a certain post-election lethargy at EiE, it would still be difficult to justify the delay. It is also possible that Ed is either mistaken or lying, and the check went out even later than “later in November.” If any statement from either the RHA or Northern Light is untrue, this is perhaps the most likely one yet.
In any case, while there’s no reason to assume malice in this delay, it remains a lingering question for EiE to answer.
A Stronger Motive
Gilman did not choose to elaborate on why Northern Light pledged to donate to EiE. It’s possible that Northern Light’s management may have reason to oppose rent control, cruise ships, or AirBNBs, but such motivations would be indirect, in fact rather arcane.
UPDATE 5/3/23 4:28 PM: - As previously mentioned, Gilman has now made explicit Northern Light's stated motivation for donating to EiE, that the company objected to "the overuse of referendum questions to govern. It was not due to any one particular issue that was on the ballot."
But as mentioned previously, a more plausible motive would be Northern Light Health’s interest in labor costs. Northern Light owns Mercy Hospital here in Portland, which employs many employees at or near minimum wage. Applying Occam’s Razor, this motivation seems the stronger of the two.
Enough is Enough’s Lack of Response
The Portland Townsman reached out to EiE, however, unlike the RHA and Northern Light Health, we haven’t heard back. EiE has apparently also declined to respond to the Portland Press Herald. We are obviously disappointed by this decision, and if EiE would like to weigh in, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nevertheless, with statements from two of the three fingered groups, we can still draw some conclusions about EiE. As they say, three men can keep a secret if two are dead.
All of the DSA’s outlined possibilities for exactly what happened here involve some kind of conspiracy. I mean this in the boring, legal sense, not the outlandish “conspiracy theorist” sense. However, conspiracy takes (at least) two. With the information we have gathered from the RHA and Northern Light Health, is there any hypothesis that could still plausibly put EiE into the realm of election malfeasance?
If there is, it’s not obvious. The Townsman doesn’t keep election attorneys on retainer, but let us suppose the maximal case that the DSA suggests. In the wake of the RHA’s request for a refund, perhaps EiE sought to make up for this loss in the pocket book by soliciting a new donation. Perhaps EiE thought to call in a pledge previously made by Northern Light. And perhaps they succeeded, patching up the $10,000 hole in their account.
Would this be illegal? The DSA’s letter suggests that it could be, but The Portland Townsman cannot independently verify this. If EiE acted alone, without the connivance of either the RHA or Northern Light Health, it’s not at all clear what law could have been broken. The connection between the RHA’s refund and Northern Light Health’s donation, at this point, is merely the coincidence that both are $10,000. Eyebrow-raising, perhaps, but not on its own evidence of much. There is no obvious motivation to assume, based on this alone, that any degree of coordination between the three parties has taken place.
Testimony from the DSA
All of this information gathered and pieced together on my metaphorical corkboard, the time had come to return to the DSA. While the claims of the letter had basic plausibility in the light of the two anomalies, one of these anomalies has been largely resolved and the other could simply be a coincidence. I reached out to Tzara Kane, treasurer of the Livable Portland Campaign, to fill her in on my findings and discover if the DSA had any interest in amending their claims.
After a brief chat, Kane said she would meet with other DSA members (I did not inquire specifically who) to formulate a response. She reached out several hours later with a statement.
“We still find the activity to be suspicious,” Kane began. She highlighted questions which stood unanswered. Why, in the first Portland Press Herald article on the subject, did Vitalius describe his action as requesting a “contribution” from EiE, and not a “refund”? Why has EiE not given any statements either to the Townsman or the Press Herald? Where is the evidence that this “pledge” by Northern Light Health to donate to EiE even existed, and if it did, why did it take so long for EiE to receive it? Why does EiE, its political purpose fulfilled, even still exist? And why are they accepting donations when they have five figures on-hand already, and no expenses?
All of these questions, Kane is correct, remain unanswered. The only way to answer many of them would be for a spokesman from EiE (perhaps treasurer Nick Mavodones) to step forward and clarify things, but they have not done this, nor do they seem likely to. As an addendum, Kane was sure to refrain from using the name “RHA” or “Rental Housing Alliance”, using the group’s former name “SMLA”, or the “Southern Maine Landlords Association.” This, from a self-described communist, is perhaps unsurprising.
I asked Kane whether the DSA would like to hold fast to its original claim that illegal activity had certainly taken place, or whether they’d like to allow for an alternative explanation. She stood firm. “Enough is Enough has connections with Mercy Hospital, and has a strong motivation for keeping rents in Portland high.”
This final statement in hand, the balance can now be weighed.
The Townsman’s Verdict
Did Northern Light Health illicitly funnel money through Enough is Enough to the Rental Housing Alliance to be spent on the rent control referendum this June? This is the allegation leveled by the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and if true, represents a serious case of election fraud – perhaps the most serious in Portland’s recent history.
But this claim is backed by only very thin evidence, and our conclusion is that their accusation isn’t true. Following this extensive investigation, here is the most likely explanation of what happened in reality:
Prior to the election, Northern Light Health pledged a $10,000 donation to Enough is Enough, most likely to help defeat Question D, which would raise the minimum wage for Northern Light’s hundreds of Portland employees. This check was not actually cut, however, until after the election, and so was reported in Q1 2023’s campaign finance report.
Later, the Rental Housing Alliance (burned by the passage of Question C, a strengthening of rent control) requested a refund from the $15,000 it had donated to Enough is Enough prior to the 2022 election. This money could then be used to support the June referendum to amend the rent control ordinance. Enough is Enough refunded $10,000.
These two events, the refund to the RHA and the donation from Northern Light Health, are most likely unrelated, each unknown to the other, and not the result of a conspiracy between these groups. The fact that both concerned a dollar amount of $10,000 appears to be happenstance, but EiE has not confirmed this.
The DSA, despite the preponderance of evidence shifting strongly against its allegations, continues to stand firm in claiming some level of illegal collusion took place. While it is certainly not the responsibility of a socialist organization to think the best of a large corporation and two non-socialist political groups, there comes a point where skepticism transmogrifies into bad faith – or even disinformation. The DSA’s major allegation of sophisticated election fraud is extravagant, implausible, and lacking in motive.
The City of Portland agrees. Paul Riley, Elections Administrator in the City Clerk’s office, responded to the allegations made by the DSA, and while no investigation on the scale of that undertaken here took place, he felt confident with the information available to provide a response: No violation.
Nevertheless, questions do remain. Notably, the stony silence of Enough is Enough casts some shadow over these facts, and until they step forward to address these lingering concerns, the DSA will retain just enough plausible deniability to continue their increasingly threadbare accusations.
For the good of the city, and to restore good faith, Enough is Enough should fill in the remaining gaps in the story. Then, unless major questions remain, the DSA should retract its allegations.
Ashley D. Keenan – Ashley is an editor of The Portland Townsman, writer on urbanism, local small business-owner, and Maine native. Her work primarily covers the mechanics of local government, the ongoing housing crisis, responsible market economics, and New England culture and history. She lives in Portland with her fiancé and can be personally reached at email@example.com.