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In a race in Maine that's rated a tossup and could help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate, Republican incumbent Susan Collins (left) is being challenged by Democrat Sara Gideon. (AP) In a race in Maine that's rated a tossup and could help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate, Republican incumbent Susan Collins (left) is being challenged by Democrat Sara Gideon. (AP)

In a race in Maine that's rated a tossup and could help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate, Republican incumbent Susan Collins (left) is being challenged by Democrat Sara Gideon. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher August 14, 2020

In key US Senate race, Susan Collins’ attack on rival over COVID program partly correct

If Your Time is short

  • Susan Collins, the Republican incumbent in Maine, faces Democrat Sara Gideon in the Nov. 3 election, which could help determine whether Republicans keep control of the Senate.

  • The law firm that employs Gideon’s husband received a Paycheck Protection Program loan of between $1 million and $2 million.

  • Gideon attacked Collins over the PPP; some of her points were accurate. Collins did write an exception in the law for hotels after receiving campaign donations from hotel political action committees.

Susan Collins, viewed as among the most vulnerable U.S. senators up for reelection Nov. 3, says her opponent is guilty of hypocrisy in connection with the federal Payment Protection Program response to COVID-19.

The Maine Repubican’s challenger is Democrat Sara Gideon.

Gideon’s husband’s law firm "took up to $2 million" from the Paycheck Protection Program, a Collins ad claims, the same program she "falsely" attacked Collins over.

"That’s hypocrisy," the narrator says after making the two-part claim in the ad.

It’s similar to a Republican-on-Democrat attack we fact-checked in another key Senate race, in Arizona.

In this case, the $2 million part is correct, but the "falsely attacked" part is not.

Potentially pivotal race

Collins has been a senator since 1997. Gideon has served in Maine’s state House since 2013 and as its speaker since 2016.

Many news accounts say the race is one that could determine whether Republicans keep a majority in the Senate, where they now control 53 seats.

With polls showing a tight contest — the Cook Political Report has rated the race a tossup — federal aid programs for businesses have become a focal point of attacks on both sides.

How the PPP works

Congress created the Paycheck Protection Program to help small businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic avoid layoffs. The program was established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, signed into law in March by President Donald Trump.

The law provides for up to $659 billion in loans for businesses so they can pay their employees and cover certain other expenses, such as rent and utilities. The loans are forgiven if businesses meet specified terms.

While the federal government created and administers the program, banks, credit unions and other lending institutions handle the loan applications and disbursement of funds.

Collins’ ad

Collins’ ad launched on Facebook on Aug. 1. According to Facebook, it has been viewed 175,000 to 200,000 times.

Wayne Parry, who is identified as a Maine lobsterman in the ad, appears in and narrates the 30-second piece. As has been reported, Parry also served four terms as Republican state representative, backed by campaign donations from a Collins political action committee, and is currently running for his old seat.

The ad’s first claim is about a PPP loan of "up to $2 million" to the law firm of Gideon’s husband, personal-injury attorney Benjamin Gideon.

Featured Fact-check

Berman & Simmons, a Lewiston law firm where Benjamin Gideon is a partner, received a PPP loan of between $1 million and $2 million, according to data from the Small Business Administration. The loan came from a Lewiston bank. The firm did not reply to our request for the exact amount of the loan it received.

Gideon campaign spokeswoman Maeve Coyle said Benjamin Gideon is one of 11 partners at the firm and was not involved in seeking the PPP money. She said 43 of the firm’s 61 employees are not attorneys, and that nearly all Maine law firms took PPP loans because the pandemic closed courts.

Most large Maine law firms sought PPP aid, the Associated Press reported.

"Falsely attacks Collins"

Collins’ ad says Gideon’s criticisms have included a false attack on Collins over the program. It cites a June 15 article by the Washington Post Fact Checker that called a Gideon attack ad "highly misleading." Still, there are some facts behind Gideon’s attack that are literally accurate, as new reporting from ProPublica shows. 

The Gideon ad claimed: "As coronavirus spread, Susan Collins took $12,000 from the corporate hotel industry. Then Collins wrote a special loophole into her bill allowing large, out-of-state hotels to get millions — while only one in 10 Maine small businesses were getting the help they needed."

We found that Collins collected a total of $12,500 in donations in February from hotel industry political actions. Her campaign committee received $2,500 from the International Franchise Association; $2,500 from Hilton Worldwide; and $2,500 from American Lodging and Hotel. And the American Lodging and Hotel PAC gave $5,000 to Collins’ leadership PAC.

As for the timing, by mid-February, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had confirmed 15 coronavirus cases in the United States. Collins and other senators began drafting the PPP bill in early March, said her campaign spokesman, Kevin Kelley.

Collins was a key drafter of the PPP, which targeted aid to businesses with 500 or fewer employees. She did respond to lobbying from the hotel industry.

As reported Aug. 6 by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit newsroom, Collins’ office said it had been contacted during the drafting process by the International Franchise Association and the American Hotel and Lodging Association, among other business interests, and ultimately an exception was written in the legislation for restaurant and hotel chains. Collins took credit for the exception, which allowed those companies to apply with up to 500 employees per location, even if they were much bigger overall.

At least 59 large hotel companies were approved for more than 600 forgivable government loans totaling up to $1 billion despite having more than 500 employees overall, according to ProPublica.

In an opinion article she authored, Collins called ProPublica "a left-wing outlet that is financed by Democratic billionaires." She defended the exception, saying it made a franchise hotel owner eligible "as intended to help keep the business afloat and its workers employed," but that a large corporate chain such as Hilton "is prohibited from receiving a PPP loan for its corporate headquarters or any hotels that it owns and operates directly."

On Gideon’s claim that at the time, only one in 10 small businesses in Maine got the forgivable PPP loans, the Bangor Daily News reported that statistic as of mid-April, saying 16,000 Maine small businesses had received aid. That was at a point when the first batch of PPP funds had been exhausted.

Federal figures show that as of Aug. 8, more than 28,000 PPP loans were made in Maine. So, Gideon’s number was from initial reports that later increased. 

Overall, we found Gideon’s attack on Collins to be a mixture of exaggeration and accuracy. 

Our ruling

Collins claimed that Gideon’s husband’s law firm "took up to $2 million" from the same federal program she "falsely" attacked Susan Collins over.

The law firm where Gideon’s husband is a partner did take a loan through the federal Payment Protection Program program that could be as large as $2 million. With fewer than 500 employees, the firm qualifies as a small business under the program’s guidelines. But Gideon’s attack on Collins is largely accurate. 

As Gideon claimed in an ad, after Collins received campaign contributions from the hotel industry, she wrote an exception in the PPP law that, according to a ProPublica investigation, enabled at least 59 large hotel companies to be approved for more than 600 forgivable government loans totaling up to $1 billion.

We rate Collins’ statement Half True.

Our Sources

Facebook, "Gideon is a hypocrite" ad, Aug. 1, 2020 

Email, Susan Collins campaign spokesman Kevin Kelley, Aug. 10, 2020

Email, Sara Gideon campaign spokeswoman Maeve Coyle, Aug. 10, 2020

ProPublica, "Susan Collins wrote exception that let hotel chains get coronavirus aid," Aug. 6, 2020

Bangor Daily News, "1 in 10 Maine small businesses got federal loans. More waited as funds expired," April 16, 2020

PolitiFact, "Fact-checking Arizona Senate race claim about Mark Kelly, PPP loan," Aug. 6, 2020

U.S. Small Business Administration, Paycheck Protection Program report, Aug. 8, 2020

Federalpay.org, Berman & Simmons PPP loan, accessed Aug. 9, 2020

Washington Post, "Democratic ad misleadingly attacks Susan Collins on the Paycheck Protection Program," June 15, 2020

Associated Press, "Top Maine legislators benefited from federal loans, including Sara Gideon," July 6, 2020

Maine Public Radio, "Data: Maine PPP Recipients Include High-Powered Law Firms, Businesses With Ties To Lawmakers," July 8, 2020

Bangor Daily News, Susan Collins opinion column, Aug. 8, 2020

Federal Election Commission, American Lodging and Hotel PAC donation to Dirigo PAC, Feb. 28, 2020

Federal Election Commission, International Franchise Association February 2020 donations, accessed Aug. 13, 2020

Federal Election Commission, HOTELPAC February 2020 donations, accessed Aug. 13, 2020

Federal Election Commission, Hilton Worldwide February 2020 donations, accessed Aug. 13, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, news release, Feb. 13, 2020

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In key US Senate race, Susan Collins’ attack on rival over COVID program partly correct

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