Bill forces Maine officials to report state payments they receive through businesses

By Naomi Schalit and John Christie, Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting
Posted March 07, 2012, at 5:03 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — 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 organizations 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, LD 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.

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, not from a corporation or entity for which the legislator or family member works.

The amended bill requires legislators, executive branch officials and constitutional officers, such as the attorney general and secretary of state, to report whether organizations they or family members were affiliated with — as owners or management-level employees — were paid more than $10,000 annually by the state. 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, who said “It’s about public officials being transparent.”

The legislation will 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 fell after they left office or state employment, they could simply ignore the requirement.

The bill was the subject of several meetings in which members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee debated the details of the reporting requirement. Among the questions they asked were: Should income of domestic partners be reported? Should a legislator who is a clerical employee be required to report their employer’s state contracts, or just a high-level executive employee?

“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, during the second work session. On the other hand, Damon said, he wasn’t worried about the consequences if legislators didn’t provide accurate information on their disclosures.

“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? I’m willing to go the extra yard,” said Patrick, “because I am a public servant.”

Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, an attorney, criticized several of its provisions early in Wednesday’s committee discussion.

But then Crockett left the committee room, the discussion continued for at least 20 minutes and the vote was eventually taken — a unanimous vote in favor of the bill — while he was out of the room.

Crockett then returned after the vote and told Billings and others who were in the hallway outside the committee room that he wouldn’t support the bill.

“There are too many specific issues that need to be addressed,” he said. “You don’t want to make an innocent person a criminal.”

Crockett then went in and cast his vote against the bill, making him the lone dissenter in the committee’s 10-1 vote in favor of the bill.

That had committee co-chair Nichi Farnham, a senate Republican from Bangor, shaking her head.

“He was out in the hallway when the committee was discussing the various parts of the bill,” she said. “You have to be in the room. He missed the details. … I’m a little disappointed that he didn’t stay in his seat.

“Sometimes,” continued Farnham, “with something like this you say ‘What’s their beef and can we get him on board?’ I don’t expect that to happen.”

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

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/03/07/politics/panel-approves-bill-to-fix-state-ethics-loopholes/ printed on September 22, 2014