June 23, 2018
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… and the Conflicted

Rather than admit his choice for commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection was not properly cleared of potential conflicts under state and federal law and, therefore, a poor choice, Gov. Paul LePage blamed the needed conflict-of-interest law — and pledged to have it changed. Lawmakers can’t go along with this.

Darryl Brown, a land development consultant, was reassigned Wednesday from DEP commissioner to head of the State Planning Office, an entity the governor’s budget proposes to eliminate.

Attorney General William Schneider Tuesday sent a letter to Mr. Brown saying he was unfit to serve as commissioner due to a state law.

Maine law clearly states that once legal income thresholds are reached, a person “may not serve as commissioner,” the AG’s letter said. The firm Brown founded, Main-Land Development Consultants, often assists developers that need permits from the DEP and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Mr. Schneider wrote that the federal Clean Water Act appeared to allow Mr. Brown to recuse himself or delegate work to others in areas where his consultant work presented a conflict. The EPA, however, hadn’t issued a decision in the matter, which it was asked to look into in February.

“Therefore, if in fact such a conflict exists, it would undermine your legal authority on any matter coming before you as commissioner,” Mr. Schneider wrote. He also suggested that Mr. Brown could turn over documents to prove there was not a conflict.

Gov. LePage’s solution is to change the law (which, of course, he can’t do to the federal rules).

“It is unfortunate that Maine law is so inflexible that it can be read to prevent good people from serving,” he said in a statement. “This is another example of the costs of Maine going beyond federal standards. I have discussed this issue with legislative leaders and am pleased that there is support for legislation to fix this problem.”

The Maine law is not inflexible. It is meant to ensure that the person in charge of state environmental permits doesn’t have a personal stake in who gets or does not get them. This is only logical.

It is also fair to business. Gov. LePage characterizes state regulation of business as a battle of often-misguided bureaucrats against job-creating corporations. Rather, regulations are meant to ensure a level playing field for competing businesses.

If, for example, a client of Mr. Brown’s received permits quickly but a competitor waits a year, the competitor could rightly argue that Mr. Brown’s client got favorable treatment and sue the state. Conflict-of-interest laws aim to avoid such situations. That’s why lawmakers shouldn’t weaken or eliminate them.

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