A veteran state legislator from Sanford has used a campaign fund designed to help other Democratic candidates run for office to buy tires, pay for car repairs, reimburse himself for travel and pay his wife and daughter for computer services and keeping his books.

Of the $31,179 spent by Sen. John L. Tuttle Jr.’s political action committee since 2008, 55 percent — $17,251 — has gone to himself, family members and expenses related to them and 30 percent has gone to help other Democratic candidates.

Much of the money in the John Tuttle For Leadership PAC comes from lobbyists and special interests, including the liquor and gambling industries.

The PAC paid for 106 round trips by Tuttle from Sanford to Augusta. There are many more reimbursements for trips whose destinations are not stated. The PAC paid his wife, Ann Tuttle, 26 times for bookkeeping work; paid $1,531.03 to “Riverside Service” for car repairs; and paid Wal-Mart $400 for tires.

A “leadership PAC” is a political action committee run by a current member of the Legislature or, in rare cases, a former legislator.

These PACs can accept unlimited contributions and “raise and spend millions to influence the outcome of elections and secure political power for those who operate the PACs,” Maine Citizens for Clean Elections wrote in a 2012 report.

While the majority of Tuttle’s spending is not directly on electing other Democrats, there are no rules against using the money that way.

“Leadership PACs, like all PACs, have the discretion under the election law to decide how to spend their funds,” said Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the state’s Commission on Governmental Ethics and Elections Practices.

Tuttle, 63, has represented the Sanford area for 28 years as a House and Senate member. He is running for re-election against Republican candidate David Woodsome of Waterboro, a retired teacher.

Information about Tuttle’s PAC spending comes primarily from reports filed with the commission, not from Tuttle.

Tuttle initially declined to be interviewed in person or on the phone about his PAC spending. He changed his mind and twice agreed to interviews at specific times, but both times when called back at the time of the interview, the calls went to voice mail.

Maine Democratic Party Communications Director Rachel Irwin arranged to have Tuttle answer questions submitted to her by email and then by her to Tuttle because Tuttle “doesn’t do email.”

A list of 14 questions was submitted. Tuttle answered three. Among those he did not answer were questions about payments to himself and his family.

“The purpose of my leadership PAC is to help the Democratic Party and assist in campaign activities outside of my district,” he wrote. “I am currently running for Senate majority leader and have previously run for leadership positions. I report everything that I raise and spend, because it’s the law and because I believe in transparency.”

Tuttle asserted that his PAC’s spending was not a problem.

“The ethics commission has never raised a question with me about any expenditures or fundraising. If they ever were to have questions, I would work with them to make sure things were handled properly,” he wrote.

But the ethics commission customarily does not question leadership PAC spending because it is essentially unregulated, Wayne said.

“In my day-to-day work, I do not examine PAC reports comprehensively,” he said. “Maine election law does not restrict the purposes for which PACs may spend their funds, including leadership PACs.”

While the ethics commission has not pursued investigations of leadership PAC spending, some of that spending has been the subject of public scrutiny.

In 2012, a reporter for the Current Newspapers wrote that then-state Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, had used her leadership PAC, the Dill Leadership Fund, to pay herself $4,000 to write a blog.

Dill responded to criticism of those payments by writing on a Democratic blog that leadership PACs were “the legal and transparent way elected officials in Maine raise money to support the political work they do to recruit candidates and advocate for their political causes. Every donation and expenditure is disclosed. If you or anyone else doesn’t like my blog, don’t read it, and don’t give money to the Dill Leadership Fund.”

Tuttle, like many other legislators who run leadership PACs, is a Maine Clean Election Act candidate, which means his campaign is publicly funded and restricts donations from special interests.

Tuttle praised the Clean Election system in an op-ed essay published in June 2013 in the Biddeford Journal Tribune.

“This system is what allows me, an EMT from Sanford who is not independently wealthy, to run for and get elected to the Maine Senate,” he wrote. “It gives working-class Mainers of all backgrounds a better opportunity to serve.”

“It also reduces the influence of big-money contributors and corporations,” he wrote.

But operating a leadership PAC allows Tuttle, the Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, to accept unlimited donations to the PAC from the same big-money influence the Clean Election Act is meant to curb.

The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee has jurisdiction over important areas of Maine law such as liquor sales, gambling, election laws, campaign practices, campaign financing and the Clean Election Act.

Since 2008, Tuttle’s PAC has received $41,721 in contributions.

Liquor interests such as Diageo North America, which owns brands such as Johnnie Walker, Bushmills, Smirnoff and Guinness, gave the PAC $4,000 and is the biggest contributor. Others were the Distilled Spirits Council, which describes itself as “the national trade association representing America’s leading distillers,” and which gave $1,350; and Miller Coors, which gave $1,250.

The PAC has also received contributions from gambling interests such as Macino, which gave $3,500 and which has promoted a casino in Biddeford, as well as Scarborough Downs. And two lobbying firms associated with lobbyist Jim Mitchell, who represents interests ranging from Central Maine Power to General Motors, have been among the PAC’s consistent donors, giving a total of $3,000.

Andrew Bossie, executive director of advocacy group Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said leadership PACs such as Tuttle’s undermine the purpose of the Clean Elections Act.

“Sometimes legislators have used these PACs as personal slush funds,” Bossie said, “where they can pay out expenses for any number of things. And the larger problem is that these leadership PACs fly in the face of contribution limits to avoid the appearance of corruption.”

Bossie’s group has long advocated for reining in leadership PACs.

“We need reforms to make sure we address any loopholes that might exist in them,” Bossie said.

The Tuttle PAC’s payments for Tuttle family expenses “calls into question what the spending is, and I think we need to take a look at the role these leadership PACs play in general,” Bossie said.

If reforms are proposed to the state’s leadership PACs, any bills will go before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, the very committee which, if he wins re-election to the Senate, John Tuttle could well return to lead.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Augusta. Email: [email protected] On the Web: pinetreewatchdog.org.

Staff writer Marina Villeneuve contributed to this report.

Questions submitted by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting to Sen. John Tuttle:

* What is the purpose of your PAC?

* Have you run for leadership? When?

* What do you use your PAC money for?

Since 1/1/08, your PAC has made $14,876.38 in payments/reimbursements to Tuttle family members. Please comment on this.

* Is your wife a bookkeeper?

*  What kind of computer work does your daughter do for your PAC? What are her qualifications?

* Your PAC pays for many trips to Augusta. What are you doing on those trips?

* Your PAC also paid for four trips to Dover-Foxcroft since 2008. What were you doing there?

* Often, you “advance” your reimbursement before going to Augusta. Why do you do this?

* On 9/16/12, your PAC paid $275 for “Piscataquis County Trip.” What was that?

* Your PAC paid $400 on 12/26/08 for “4 TIRES TRAVEL AUGUSTA.” Can you explain how those are a PAC expense?

* What kind of car do you drive?

* Similarly, your PAC paid “Riverside Service” $500 for “Auto repairs travel Augusta.” That was among four payments to Riverside Service since 1/1/08 totaling $1531. How is that a PAC expense?

* Who is Richard Tuttle? Your PAC paid him $75 on 12/17/12 for “Travel to Augusta job interview–constituent help.” Can you explain what that payment was for and why it was a PAC expense?

* You have spent slightly more than 50 percent of your PAC expenditures on payments to yourself and family members and reimbursements to you for travel. The purpose of PAC expenditures, according to state law, is “A purchase, payment, distribution, loan, advance, deposit or gift of money or anything of value, made for the purpose of initiating or influencing a campaign.” Can you explain how these expenditures are legitimate PAC expenditures under the law?

Answers provided by Sen. Tuttle:

The purpose of my leadership PAC is to help the Democratic Party and assist in campaign activities outside of my district. I am currently running for Senate Majority Leader and have previously run for leadership positions. I report everything that I raise and spend, because it’s the law and because I believe in transparency.

The Ethics Commission has never raised a question with me about any expenditures or fundraising. If they ever were to have questions, I would work with them to make sure things were handled properly.

My wife is the treasurer of my PAC. She manages the bank account and checkbook, and the finances. She is compensated a typical fee for her work.

Every now and then, if there is a constituent who needs help, I do my best to help him or her. There are a lot of people in my district who struggle to make ends meet. Richard Tuttle, who is not related to me, is one person I helped by paying for his gas for a job interview. This was a rare occurrence, not the norm. I believe these were proper expenditures and I reported them.

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