While there have been relatively few complaints of ethics violations among Maine lawmakers and lobbyists, it makes sense to periodically review the state’s rules to ensure they are adequate and in line with public expectations. The leaders of the Maine Legislature recently announced the creation of an advisory panel that will do such a review, a good move.
In a state with a citizen Legislature, conflicts are sure to arise. Ensuring that they are easily identified and avoided as often as possible, as Speaker John Richardson has pointed out, will go a long way to restoring public confidence that has been shaken by the lobbying scandal in Washington and charges that a paper mill employee abused his position on the Natural Resources Committee.
A key question the group will be asked to answer is whether current rules are adequate and clear. Another is whether these rules match public expectations. In some situations, the appearance of a conflict can be as problematic as an actual conflict. The group must decide how best to avoid both.
One way would be to improve public disclosure requirements. Maine was ranked 41st in the country by the Center for Public Integrity and earned a grade of F for its weak requirements. Maine got low marks because lawmakers don’t have to list their job title, their spouse’s name or whether they are an officer of a company. Requiring lawmakers to provide this information will prompt them to think harder about any potential conflicts or if they fail to, the information will help the public do so.
Another area where guidance is needed is legislative committee assignments, which are not now covered by state conflict of interest laws. The Ethics Commission will decide next week whether to launch an investigation of Rep. Tom Saviello, an independent from Wilton who is the environmental manager for the International Paper Co. mill in Jay.
Environmental groups contend that he violated state ethics laws by trying to engineer legislation that specifically benefited his employer and interfered with Department of Environmental Protection rules and their enforcement. There are also charges that Rep. Saviello negotiated with the former DEP Commissioner Dawn Gallagher to drop an enforcement action against IP for violating environmental laws that he would have been in charge of ensuring the company followed. In the face of these charges, Rep. Saviello temporarily left the Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the DEP, and asked the Ethics Commission to review the case.
The situation could have been avoided if Rep. Saviello had not been put on the Natural Resources Committee. State statutes prohibit lawmakers from voting on bills that would financially benefit them, but it has not prohibition against lawmakers serving on committees that regulate their employers, or in Rep. Saviello’s case, formulate, change and oversee the enforcement of laws that the lawmaker is charged with upholding for his employer. Although this may be an extreme case, better guidance would help identify inappropriate committee appointments.
One of the best outcomes of this review is simply heightened awareness of conflict issues. Prompting lawmakers to consider their financial interest, employment and other areas that could affect how they vote could help avoid conflicts before they arise.