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March 8, 2012

Bill tries to fix major ethics loophole in Maine

By NAOMI SCHALIT and JOHN CHRISTIE Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

AUGUSTA — A legislative committee has approved a bill to close an ethics law loophole that has allowed high-level state officials to avoid reporting millions of dollars in state payments to businesses and other entities run by themselves or their immediate family members.

The bill now heads for a vote by the full Legislature.

Gov. Paul LePage proposed the bill, L.D. 1806, shortly after publication of a Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting story that revealed the state made almost $235 million in such payments from 2003 to 2010.

Current law requires that legislators or high-level state employees report state purchases of goods or services worth more than $1,000 only if they were purchased directly from the individual legislator or family member.

The amended bill would require legislators, executive branch officials and constitutional officers -- such as the attorney general and secretary of state -- to report if the state pays more than $10,000 a year to organizations they own, or where they hold management positions. LePage's original bill had proposed a $1,000 reporting trigger, which the committee changed.

"I think the governor will be pleased about where this ended up," said Dan Billings, legal counsel to LePage.

The legislation would also close another loophole that has allowed lawmakers and high-level executive branch officials to avoid disclosing their income during their last year working in state government. If the filing deadline falls after they leave office or state employment, they would be allowed to ignore the requirement.

Members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee debated details of the reporting requirement, including whether it should cover income of domestic partners, and whether legislators who are clerical employees should be required to report their employer's state contracts or whether that requirement should be limited to lawmakers who are high-level executive employees.

"You're going to have to have a Rubik's Cube to figure out what you have to report," said Rep. Douglas Damon, R-Bangor. On the other hand, Damon said, he wasn't worried about the consequences if legislators didn't provide accurate information on their disclosures.

"(If) it's not provided, it's not provided, what's the penalty? The world doesn't stop if they don't provide it," Damon said.

In the end, Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, chastised his fellow lawmakers Wednesday for worrying too much about how burdensome the reporting requirement would be.

"This committee over the years has had numerous bills axed to promote transparency in government," Patrick said. "A lot of times they go down in flames because we look at it from the standpoint of it being a little onerous to us. But I look at it from the point of view, what does the public expect."

Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, an attorney, criticized several of its provisions early in Wednesday's committee discussion, and cast the lone vote against the bill. The final vote was 10-1.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, non--profit news service based in Hallowell. It can be contacted online at pinetreewatchdog.org or at:

mainecenter@gmail.com





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