In this Saturday, May 19, 2018, file photo, then-gubernatorial candidate Betsy Sweet speaks at the Democratic convention, in Lewiston. Sweet, who is running to unseat U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, may have to repay nearly $8,100 in taxpayer funds from her 2018 gubernatorial campaign. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Betsy Sweet may have to repay nearly $8,100, most of which was spent on home office space, travel and other bills incurred before qualifying for the program allowing her to run for governor in 2018 with taxpayer money.

On Wednesday, Maine Ethics Commission staff released routine audits of Sweet and two other gubernatorial candidates who qualified for funding under Maine Clean Election Act, recommending Sweet, a lobbyist who finished third in the Democratic primary, pay back that money to the state.

The commission’s audit of Sweet’s campaign found the candidate was reimbursed with Clean Election money for purchases made before she qualified for the program in April 2018. State law says candidates are prohibited from using Clean Election money to reimburse themselves for expenses they incur before certification.

Those expenses included costs of renting campaign office space in her Hallowell home, vehicle travel, utilities and other expenses. They should have been paid for with “seed money” — limited fundraising from private individuals allowed so candidates can bridge the gap between getting into the race and qualifying for the Clean Election program.

In another instance, commission auditors found Sweet was reimbursed for $1,950 in phone bills for five different lines. One of them was used solely for campaign purposes, while another was only partially used for the campaign. Three others were not used for the campaign at all.

In a memo, Jonathan Wayne, the executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, said staff discussed some of the travel expenses with Sweet’s campaign in 2018 and the campaign had not kept sufficient records on them, but that the commission deferred judgment until the audit.

Wayne recommended that Sweet repay nearly $8,100 to the state. The four-member ethics commission will consider that recommendation at a meeting Dec. 18. In a letter, Sweet asked the commission to waive the repayment while admitting mistakes and saying her gubernatorial campaign prioritized other “necessary expenses” with seed money.

“Now I am faced, two years later, with reimbursing a very large sum of money that has long ago been spent as I tried to recover financially from the first campaign,” Sweet said.

In a statement, Sweet said the mistake stemmed from “reconciling campaign expenses” and said she “will be fully reimbursing the state for those expenses.”

Sweet, who is backed by some national progressive groups, is one of four Democrats running active campaigns in a nationally targeted race against U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in 2020 alongside House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport, former Google executive Ross LaJeunesse of Biddeford and lawyer Bre Kidman of Saco.

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...