Lawmakers told transparency bill will ensure ‘ethical government’

Posted Feb. 22, 2012, at 5:49 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislators were urged Wednesday to approve a bill submitted by Gov. Paul LePage to close an ethics law loophole that has allowed high-level state officials not to report millions in state payments to organizations run by themselves or their spouses.

The governor proposed the bill, L.D. 1806, shortly after publication of a Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting story that revealed that between 2003 and 2010 the state paid almost $235 million to such organizations.

“This legislation will help ensure that the citizens of Maine have a transparent and ethical government and I urge this committee to grant it a unanimous ‘ought to pass,’” said Sen. Nichi Farnham, R-Bangor, who delivered the public hearing testimony before the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on behalf of the bill’s sponsor, Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry.

“This legislation,” said Farnham, “attempts to close loopholes in the laws governing financial disclosure by legislators and certain executive employees that quite frankly most of us did not realize were there.”

Current law requires only that legislators or high-level state employees report state purchases of goods or services worth more than $1,000 directly from the individual legislator or family member, not from a corporation or entity for which the legislator or family member works.

The proposed bill requires legislators, executive branch officials and constitutional officers, like the attorney general and secretary of state, to disclose if organizations they or family members were affiliated with — as owners or management-level employees — were paid more than $1,000 annually by the state.

“If you’re the greeter at Walmart and Walmart is doing business with the state you wouldn’t have to disclose that,” said Dan Billings, legal counsel for LePage. “If you’re the manager of Walmart and Walmart is doing business with the state, you’d have to disclose that.”

But that was the one section of the proposed legislation that came under attack during the hearing.

Former House Minority Leader Joe Bruno, a Republican from Raymond and a professional pharmacist, served as a legislator and was CEO and president of Goold Health Systems as well as a board member of the controlling group of Community Pharmacies when each of those businesses got millions of dollars in state contracts. Bruno told lawmakers that the disclosure requirement shouldn’t be restricted to managerial-level employees or owners.

“I’m in favor of this bill,” said Bruno. “But make it equal for everyone. Employees of pharmacies don’t have to disclose. I’m an owner and I have to disclose? Why should any manager be different from any employee who’s doing the same thing? Think about what you’re asking here when you just single out professional, executive managers.”

LePage’s proposed legislation closes another loophole documented in the center’s story that has allowed departing legislators and officials to ignore the requirement to file financial disclosures each year if the filing deadline falls after they have left office or state employment.

In the past, lawmakers and high-level executive branch employees did not have to file a financial disclosure for their last year, or portion of a year, in state government. Bruno, for example, left office at the end of 2004. But when ethics commission staffer Cyndi Phillips was asked for a copy of Bruno’s 2004 financial disclosure, she gave this response:

“Unfortunately, we do not have a disclosure form for Senator Bruno for 2004 because he would not have had to report until February 2005, when he no longer was in office.”

The work session on the bill is not yet scheduled.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service based in Hallowell. Web: pinetreewatchdog.org. Email: mainecenter@gmail.com.

 

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