Conflicted Secretary

Posted March 30, 2010, at 5:25 p.m.

As Maine’s Secretary of State, Matthew Dunlap is responsible for running state elections, overseeing the state archives, ensuring compliance with incorporation filings and administering the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. That ought to be enough responsibilities for a good day’s work. But Mr. Dunlap also finds time to serve on the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine board of directors.

While serving on a nonprofit board might seem like a worthy activity, Mr. Dunlap is a key figure in state government, so his work outside of government carries a certain weight because of his day job. The Sportsman’s alliance is not like the local Boy Scout troop or the PTA. It is a lobbying group, taking sides in the often-divisive debates over laws relating to hunting, fishing, land conservation and guns.

Although state law does not prohibit the secretary of state or other constitutional officers from serving on such a board, clearly this service presents a conflict. The law should change to reflect that such conflicts are wrong.

When Mr. Dunlap speaks about issues of concern to the alliance, those listening — whether they be lawmakers, stakeholders or the general public — attach to his words the authority of his office (which is emphasized by the fact that the alliance consistently includes his title as secretary of state when referring to Mr. Dunlap). Mr. Dunlap is a Democrat, adding the partisan imprimatur to his words on sportsmen’s matters.

At the very least, his dual roles cause confusion. At worst, they give undue influence to SAM.

Mr. Dunlap counters that if anyone asks him about sportsmen’s issues, he stresses that he does not speak on behalf of the alliance. Any authority his words carry, he says, come from his 12 years writing an outdoors column and his six years serving as chairman of the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee. But the next person to hold his job may not be so vigilant.

And there are inherent conflicts that cannot be dismissed. If another citizen initiative like the bear-baiting ban is filed with his office, proponents of such a measure — opposed by SAM — might wonder if the secretary is unfairly rejecting some signatures on the petitions. Though Mr. Dunlap may be assiduously fair, the perception would be that he has a dog in the fight. When it comes to conflicts, perception rules.

The conflicts call attention to the ongoing problem of having the Legislature elect top state officials. In addition to the secretary of state, the Legislature elects the attorney general, treasurer and auditor. If they were elected by the public or appointed by the governor and confirmed the Senate, conflicts such as serving on SAM’s board of directors would not be tolerated.

Maine is one of 11 states without an independent agency to regulate the professional ethics of those serving in the executive branch. It’s time rules are drafted addressing conflicts of interest and codes of conduct. Mr. Dunlap may have strong feelings about SAM’s mission, and he may be diligent in his job as secretary of state. But he exercises poor judgment by mixing the two.

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