Collins Challenger Used PAC to Reimburse Own Contributions

Sara Gideon reimbursed herself for federal contributions, ‘worst campaign finance violation,’ expert says

Sara Gideon
Sara Gideon / Facebook

Maine Democrat Sara Gideon repeatedly violated election laws by getting reimbursed for personal political contributions to federal campaigns through a corporate-funded Maine political action committee, a review of both state and federal campaign filings discovered.

Federal election law explicitly prohibits individuals from making contributions in the name of another person or entity. The prohibition is spelled out on Gideon's own contribution page, which makes donors certify, "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."

Yet Gideon, the Senate candidate anointed by the Democratic establishment to challenge incumbent senator Susan Collins (R., Maine.), appears to have openly violated this prohibition on four separate occasions.

On September 30, 2015, for example, Gideon contributed $1,000 to Democratic congressional candidate Emily Cain's campaign, according to a Cain for Congress disclosure filing to the Federal Election Commission. A month later on October 28, 2015, Gideon received a $1,000 payment from Gideon Leadership PAC, a Maine entity. The payment was openly described on the Maine disclosure as a "reimbursement for federal contribution."

In June 2016, Gideon contributed an additional $250 to Cain and was again reimbursed the $250 from Gideon Leadership PAC.

Gideon is listed as the principal officer of Gideon Leadership PAC, and also a "decision-maker" responsible for its "spending decisions," according to an acknowledgment of responsibilities form filed to the Maine ethics commission.

Cleta Mitchell, a veteran campaign finance attorney who reviewed the filings, said she was surprised by such clear violations by a longtime officeholder and political candidate.

"Contributions in the name of another is probably the number one worst campaign finance violation under federal law," Mitchell said.

"I've seen laypeople who periodically need reminders that it's illegal to reimburse someone for a campaign contribution, but I've never seen anyone in the political arena, especially an officeholder, who doesn’t understand that this is a serious thing you just do not do," she added. "Your donors are your donors, and they better not be getting reimbursed by any third party."

Gideon also reimbursed herself for two individual contributions she made to federal accounts for the Maine Democratic Party. A $1,000 contribution on July 11, 2016, was reimbursed in full on July 25, 2016, and a $500 contribution on October 3, 2016, was reimbursed in full on October 12, 2016.

Erin Chlopak, who led the Federal Election Commission's policy division until 2018, noted that the Gideon PAC's acceptance of direct contributions from corporations further complicates things.

"Separate and apart from the potential violations of the straw donor ban is the use of corporate money to effectively contribute to federal candidates," said Chlopak, who is now director of campaign finance strategy at the Campaign Legal Center.

Among the many donors to Gideon Leadership PAC while she was using it to reimburse her individual contributions were corporate giants such as Walmart, Verizon, Time Warner, AT&T, Astrazeneca, PhRMA, Merck, Anheuser Busch, Visa, Comcast, and Aetna.

Corporations may be allowed to contribute directly to PACs in Maine, but are strictly prohibited from contributing to federal campaigns, Choplak explained.

"Corporations cannot make contributions to a federal campaign, and you can't circumvent that ban by using a straw donor to funnel money originally from a company to a federal candidate," she said.

Gideon has been hit by opponents in the Maine Senate primary for building her political career off corporate donations, with one primary challenger pointing to corporate support of her leadership PAC as evidence that she's a candidate of "special interests."

Mitchell, the campaign finance expert, said she was taken aback by Gideon's continued use of the PAC to reimburse herself for contributions.

"That's what's so shocking to me," Mitchell said. "She didn't do it just one time, she kept doing it. She signed that she's the decision maker, so I think she was the one making the disbursements."

"She'll just go write a check personally, and then go back and reimburse herself with other people's money," she said. "She doesn't see anything wrong with that?"

Gideon did not respond to emails with questions on her contributions.

Gideon in 2017 criticized politicians who have "taken advantage of having a PAC for personal benefit."