State Sen. John Tuttle of 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 Tuttle’s political action committee since 2008, 55 percent – $17,251 – has gone to himself, family members and expenses related to them and only 30 percent 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 (and there are many more reimbursements for trips whose destinations are not stated); paid his wife, Ann Tuttle, 26 times for bookkeeping work; paid $1,531 to “Riverside Service” for car repairs; and paid Wal-Mart $400 for tires.

LEADERSHIP PAC

A “leadership PAC” is a political action committee run by a legislator or, in rare cases, a former legislator. These PACs can accept an unlimited amount of contributions and “raise and spend millions to influence the outcome of elections and secure political power for those who operate the PACs,” wrote Maine Citizens for Clean Elections 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 in the Legislature for 28 years as both a House and Senate member. He is running for re-election against Republican David Woodsome of Waterboro, a retired teacher.

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

Tuttle declined to be interviewed about his PAC spending. He then changed his mind and twice agreed to interviews at specific times. But both times when called back at the time for the interview, the calls went to voicemail.

Rachel Irwin, the Maine Democratic Party’s communications director, then arranged to have Tuttle answer questions submitted by email to her and then by her to Tuttle because Tuttle “doesn’t do email.” A list of 14 questions was submitted, but Tuttle answered only 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,” Tuttle 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.

ESSENTIALLY UNREGULATED

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.”

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 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. It gives working-class Mainers of all backgrounds a better opportunity to serve,” he wrote. “It also reduces the influence of big-money contributors and corporations.”

But operating a leadership PAC allows Tuttle, 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.

IN A POWERFUL POSITION

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. Contributors include liquor interests such as:

n Diageo North America, which owns brands such as Johnnie Walker, Bushmills, Smirnoff and Guinness, gave the PAC $4,000 and is the biggest contributor.

n The Distilled Spirits Council, which describes itself as “the national trade association representing America’s leading distillers.” It gave $1,350.

n Miller Coors, which gave $1,250.

The PAC has also received contributions from gambling interests such as Macino LLC, 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 that leadership PACs like 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.”

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 that, if he wins re-election, Tuttle could return to lead.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Augusta. Email: [email protected] Web: pinetreewatchdog.org. Staff writer Marina Villeneuve contributed to this report.