Maine Speaker of the House, Sara Gideon, D-Freeport. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Democratic candidate in the 2020 race to unseat U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, ran afoul of federal election law by using a state political committee funded partially by corporations to reimburse herself for donations in 2015 and 2016.

Gideon’s campaign said Thursday that the committee got “incorrect guidance” on how to process the donations and that the candidate sent a check to the U.S. Treasury in an amount covering the total cost of the contributions because the state committee is dissolved.

A centerpiece of Gideon’s campaign against Collins, a Republican, has been a pledge to not accept contributions from corporate political committees. Gideon’s committee, however, raised 60 percent of its money from commercial sources between 2014 and early 2019, according to state records.

The issue around her contributions was first reported by The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet. Election law experts said the contributions — which totaled at least $2,750 — were a clear-cut violation.

In 2015, Gideon contributed $1,000 to Emily Cain, who was the Democratic candidate running for the seat in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. Nearly a month later, Gideon’s state political action committee paid her $1,000, calling it a “reimbursement for federal contribution.”

That committee, Gideon Leadership PAC, which has largely been used to bolster Democratic legislative campaigns, reimbursed Gideon three more times through 2016 for $1,750 more in contributions to Cain and the federal campaign arm of the Maine Democratic Party.

Federal and Maine election law prohibit these “ contributions in the name of another.” Federal law bars corporations from donating to candidates and party committees, while Maine allows corporate contributions to both candidates and state political action committees.

“While these contributions were within the legal contribution limit and fully disclosed in public reporting, the fundraising committee was given incorrect guidance on how to process them,” said Amy Mesner, Gideon’s campaign manager, in a Thursday statement. “As soon as we were made aware of the error, it was addressed.”

Eric Wang, a lawyer who formerly worked for a Republican commissioner, called the mistake “bone-headed” and said Gideon “should know better.” Erin Chlopak, a former head of the Federal Election Commission’s policy division, said the filing indicates “a pretty clear-cut straw donor” situation, but it didn’t look intentional because the filings disclosed the reimbursements.

“Typically, when people try to break the law, they try to be more discreet about it,” said Chlopak, who now works for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.

Gideon is among five Democrats running for Collins’ seat alongside lobbyist Betsy Sweet of Hallowell, Saco lawyer Bre Kidman, retired Air Force major general Jonathan Treacy of Oxford and travel agent Michael Bunker of Bangor. Gideon and Sweet, the third-place finisher in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary, are the best-known candidates in the field.

The House speaker is backed by the campaign arm of Senate Democrats and groups including End Citizens United, whose goal is to “end big money in politics.” Sweet is backed by progressive groups, including Justice Democrats, which is credited for helping to elect U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York.

Sweet has said her fundraising will be centered on small donors and questioned Gideon’s personal commitment to her pledge on corporate money after those pledges have been popularized by big-name progressives, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“It shows the problem of how much influence corporations and big money has in our politics, even here in Maine,” she said.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...