AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Ethics Commission announced Tuesday that allegations made against House Speaker Mark Eves that his job creates a conflict of interest when it comes to his advocacy of Medicaid expansion were unfounded.
Earlier this month, a group of House Republicans signed a joint letter to Eves, asking the North Berwick Democrat to recuse himself from legislative activities related to Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act.
The Republicans, led by Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst, alleged that the conflict exists because Eves’ employer, Sweetser, accepts Medicaid patients and holds Medicaid-funded contracts. On Feb. 16, Eves requested an opinion on the matter from Maine Ethics Commission director Jonathan Wayne.
“I strongly disagree with these allegations and write to put these claims to rest so we may debate the merits of the issue,” wrote Eves in his request to Wayne. “In Maine, we are fortunate enough to have a citizen Legislature, where teachers, doctors, farmers and nurses can use their expertise to help make our state policy better. As a health care professional, I’m proud to serve alongside them.”
Wayne responded on Tuesday by saying he and his staff investigated the allegations, including contacting Eves’ bosses at Sweetser. Since he has been speaker of the House, Eves has taken unpaid leaves of absences from his job, according to his letter to Wayne and statements to reporters, so he can focus on his duties in the Legislature.
“Applying the Legislature’s own standards, it is the opinion of the Ethics Commission staff that your past and ongoing support of LD 1578 [the Medicaid expansion bill] in the 126th Legislature is not a conflict of interest, because of the broad effect of the proposed legislation on health care providers in Maine generally and the lack of any personal benefit to you,” wrote Wayne in the 10-page Feb. 25 letter.
Wayne cautioned Eves that his letter reflected an opinion generated by the Ethics Commission’s staff and does not bind the commission to any decision should a formal complaint be filed against Eves. Wayne has told the Bangor Daily News in the past that complaints to the commission are confidential during the investigatory phase and therefore he would not say whether any complaint has been filed.
Wayne wrote that past precedent set by the commission and by former Maine Attorney General James Tierney, who wrote an advisory opinion involving another legislator in 1983, supports the staff finding.
“The commission has taken the view that voting on legislation results in a conflict of interest … only if the legislator or immediate family member personally benefits from the legislation,” wrote Wayne.
In his advisory opinion, Tierney wrote something similar, according to Wayne.
“The ‘direct substantial personal financial benefit’ [referred to in Maine law] … must involve a financial reward separate and distinct from the remuneration one receives as an employee or agent for services rendered,” wrote Tierney.
Eves said in a written statement that the group of 26 lawmakers calling for him to detach himself from the Medicaid debate does not represent a majority of his colleagues, nor has their argument gained much traction.
“I’ve been so grateful to have such strong support from both sides of the aisle, as desperate opponents of health care have made unfounded allegations against me,” said Eves.
Lockman could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.