An Aroostook County man has filed a complaint against assistant Maine House Minority Leader Trey Stewart of Presque Isle, alleging that the Republican legislator violated campaign finance law by using a political action committee to reimburse himself for clothes and new tires.
The complaint by Fort Fairfield resident Rommy Haines alleges that Stewart ran afoul of a law designed to prevent legislators from using private donations to political action committees to enrich themselves.
Stewart, who recently relinquished control of the PAC, is now running against Democratic state Sen. Mike Carpenter, the former Maine attorney general, in what’s expected to be a tight race that could help determine control of the state Senate.
In his complaint, Haines flagged four expenditures for the Ethics Commission, two in 2018 and two in 2019.
In 2018, Stewart’s Star City PAC spent nearly $800 at VIP Tires and Service in Presque Isle for “tires and service for vehicle.” A year later, the PAC reported an expenditure of more than $1,000 at Percy’s Auto Sales in Presque Isle for “vehicle maintenance/tire replacement for travel around Maine related to campaigns.”
In addition, Stewart’s PAC reported spending more than $150 at Target in Augusta in November of 2018 for “spare clothes for Augusta work.” The following year, the PAC reported a nearly $60 expenditure at Target in Augusta for “spare clothes for extended, unanticipated travel to Augusta.”
“As I understand it these are clear violations of the personal enrichment statute that prevents legislators from enriching themselves with funds intended for campaigns,” Haines wrote in an email to the Ethics Commission. “You can’t raise money under the guise of elections, and then turn around and buy yourself fancy tires and new clothes.”
Stewart did not immediately respond to an email or phone call seeking comment.
Haines alleges that the expenditures violate a section of campaign finance law that attempts to curb the use of PACs for legislators’ personal use or enrichment. The section of law was added in 2017 after former Democratic state Sen. John Tuttle was discovered in 2014 to have used his PAC to buy tires, pay for car repairs, reimburse himself for travel and pay family members for duties associated with the PAC.
Such expenses were not illegal at the time because PAC expenditures were largely unregulated. The Legislature has since tightened those rules, although the most recent changes in 2019 are not germane to the complaint against Stewart.
Jonathan Wayne, director of the Maine Ethics Commission, said he has requested that Stewart provide a written response to the complaint, but one had not arrived as of early Friday afternoon.
It’s unclear if Stewart’s expenses will be considered violations under the new restrictions. The personal enrichment statute allows legislators to spend money “for travel expenses associated with volunteering for the committee,” but it makes no mention of vehicle maintenance or tire replacement.
The spending appears to be unusual. An expenditure search on the Ethics website for auto repair and tire replacement for all active PACs going back to 2017 shows only the expenditures by Stewart’s Star City PAC that are now the subject of the complaint. The search is not exhaustive because PACs sometimes categorize expenditures differently.
The memo portion for tire expenditures describes them as maintenance for travel around the state to assist in campaigns. A review of Star City PAC expenditures shows more than $7,300 in travel expenditures, mostly for airfare, parking and ridesharing services, which is not unusual. The PAC had only one expenditure for mileage — $319 — which is also permitted under the law.
The Star City PAC is designated as a leadership PAC, which are typically used by legislators aspiring to legislative leadership positions in the Legislature. Such PACs often make direct donations to candidates running for the Legislature, as well as donations to other PACs, as a way of boosting the legislator’s standing among fellow lawmakers.
The Star City PAC has given more than $45,000 to assist Republican House candidates and party committees since it was formed in 2017.
Carpenter, Stewart’s opponent in the Senate race, does not currently operate a PAC.
Wayne, with the Ethics Commission, said in an email that he typically gives legislators and PAC officers two weeks to respond to a complaint. Ethics staff will then do a preliminary review of the complaint before forwarding it to the five-member commission for consideration.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.