Ethical questions can be thorny, and especially in a small state like Maine the ones regarding conflicts of interest can be the most complicated to answer.
It’s sometimes hard to know when a lawmaker is putting real-world experience and a lifetime of associations to work on behalf of the people who elected him, or when his judgment is clouded by the source of his paycheck.
Let’s all thank Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro: He’s given us an easy one.
Trahan is serving his second term in the state Senate, after serving four in the House. Last week it was announced that he had been named executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM), one of the state’s most powerful lobbying organizations and one that takes positions on a diverse set of issues, from land use and environmental policy to gun control. Trahan wonders whether he can take this new post and still keep his seat in the Senate.
The answer should be a resounding no.
Maine law does not specifically prohibit lobbyists from serving in the Legislature (even though it should), but there is plenty of guidance in the legislative code of ethics and common law principles that would steer wise people from trying to balance both jobs.
Past lawmakers have served while holding positions in other organizations similar to the one Trahan has accepted with SAM. They probably should have been forced to choose between the two jobs, but even though they weren’t, SAM is too much of a force in the State House to let this oversight be repeated.
Trahan has suggested that he could draw a paycheck from an advocacy organization while still representing his constituents by not officially registering as a lobbyist, and leaving those duties to others. But that doesn’t cut it.
As head of the organization, Trahan would still hire and supervise whoever ends up being SAM’s lobbyist, and he would have access to his legislative colleagues to lobby them unofficially. He would still have the same conflict of interest that would result from him being the paid spokesman of a special interest group.
The problem is that even though in more than a decade of legislative service Trahan has found the interests of his district to fall in line with the interests of SAM – and it’s hard to imagine that he would have gotten the job with the organization if they didn’t – that doesn’t mean they always would.
There could be priorities for Maine sportsmen that would not be in the interest of a majority of his constituents.
When voters elect someone to represent them in the state Legislature, they shouldn’t have to question whether that legislator is listening to the people who elected him or the ones who sign his paycheck.
As the executive director of SAM, Trahan will still have an opportunity to influence the development of public policy in Maine. But he should not do so while continuing to serve in the state Senate. Maine is a small state, but it’s not that small.
The sportsmen of Maine and the people of Senate District 20 have the right to be represented – and they shouldn’t have to share.