WATERVILLE — Mayor Dana Sennett is being asked by the newspaper he works for to repay more than $3,800 in improper discounts he took for political advertisements he placed in the paper.
Sennett, a Democrat, the incumbent in a three-way race in today’s mayoral election, is an advertising account executive for the Morning Sentinel.
Anthony Ronzio, editor and publisher of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, said Sennett used his position as an advertising representative for the newspaper to receive discounted rates unavailable to other political candidates. He said Sennett also used an employee discount that should not have applied to political advertising.
Ronzio said the improper discounts were discovered Monday after the campaign of mayoral candidate Karen Heck raised questions about Sennett’s political advertisements.
Heck is unenrolled. The other candidate is Republican Andrew Roy.
“Heck’s campaign inquiry led us to review the billing records for all our political advertising and discrepancies were found with those placed by Dana Sennett for his mayoral campaign,” Ronzio said Monday.
Sennett said he learned about the alleged improper discounts Monday morning from newspaper officials.
“If I’m misappropriating any funds from my employer, I’m willing to pay back the amount,” he said.
He said he placed the advertisements himself.
“I took an employee discount and programs that were available that they (newspaper officials) claimed should have been put under political and not use it for retail advertising,” he said.
Asked if he knew he was doing something wrong when he took the discounts, he said, “I do now.”
Sennett said newspaper officials looked at some of the advertisements he placed and said the appropriate amounts were not charged for them.
“I feel bad about it and I said I was sorry and it’s one of the mistakes you make,” he said.
Sennett said he received a memo in August 2010 from a former advertising executive at the newspaper that said employees have a 50 percent discount and the memo says nothing about not being able to use it for political advertisements. He said Ronzio has that memo.
Sennett also said his supervisor signed off on the discounts for the political advertisements that he placed in the newspaper.
“It’s a misunderstanding and I hope that we can clarify it and I’m willing to clarify it. It just happened and I feel like they’re accusing me of something I wasn’t even ready to respond to,” he said.
Ronzio said the discrepancy between what Sennett was charged for his advertisements and what he should have been charged was $3,837, and that Sennett has been asked to repay that difference.
The discrepancies were found in advertisements that have run in the newspaper this month, as well as in June, July and August, he said.
The policy of the Morning Sentinel and its sister paper, the Kennebec Journal, based in Augusta, is to charge the same advertising rate to all political campaigns and their causes, according to Ronzio.
“It disturbs me greatly that while the news department of the Morning Sentinel has gone to great lengths to cover this mayoral race with balance, fairness and objectivity, a fellow employee was using his relationship with the paper for his own political ends,” Ronzio said. “It bothers me even more that our internal controls to prevent against such an event proved so woefully ineffective.”
The newspapers will now review all of its policies and practices regarding political advertising, Ronzio said.
Contacted Monday night, Heck referred questions to her campaign manager, Dana Hernandez, saying Hernandez is the one who discovered the issue with Sennett’s advertisements.
Hernandez said she that she bought small, black-and-white advertisements for the Heck campaign to run recently for four days in the newspaper. Then she noticed Sennett’s half-page, full-color advertisements in the newspaper on Friday and Sunday.
She said she was concerned with what she saw because she knew the half-page color advertisements cost much more than the ones she had bought for Heck and how much the two campaigns had raised.
She said it almost looked like the Sentinel was endorsing Sennett.
“It kept me up at night — and I just felt like somebody needed to get a phone call,” Hernandez said. “I just felt like we needed answers.”
She said she was not concerned with what Sennett was spending, but with apparent discounts he was getting and the favorable placement his ads were getting in the newspaper.
“It didn’t make sense unless he suddenly got this big donation and if that’s the case, that’s fine,” she said.
Roy said, “To me, it’s an unfair disadvantage — kind of conflict of interest if you ask me. Kind of like showing the building and saying, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to sell the building.’”
Roy said he was referring to Sennett’s push to sell the Morning Sentinel building to the city for a new police station and then saying later, when people saw it as a conflict of interest, saying he preferred a site at Head of Falls for building a new station.
Roy did not seek campaign donations, saying he did not think it was right to ask people for money during tight economic times.
Amy Calder — 861-9247