The Maine Supreme Judicial Court did not exonerate state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, and its opinion should not put the matter to rest.
The court’s refusal to take up the matter of whether Poliquin violated the constitutional prohibition against “engaging in commerce” by continuing to operate his multimillion-dollar real estate company while conducting the state’s business was decided on purely technical grounds.
The court ruling said that in order for it to weigh in, the matter had to be one of “live gravity,” which the court said means that “the body asking the question requires judicial guidance to carry out its obligations.” Since there was no bill regarding Poliquin before the Maine House, which posed the question, there was nothing for the court to weigh in on.
So what’s left is a series of unanswered ethical questions. Attorney General William Schneider, who, like Poliquin, is running for the GOP nominiation to replace Olympia Snowe in the U.S. Senate, got partway down the road to answering them, but stopped short.
Schneider said that in order for Poliquin to comply with the state constitution, he should step aside from actively running his businesses and should not appear on their behalf before any government body. While Schneider did not point this out, Poliquin had done both of those things during his first year in public office. The question Schneider left open was, if that would be a constitutional violation this year, what was it last year?
Other state treasurers have taken steps to avoid this kind of conflict. Some have resigned from law firms, others have sold businesses. Poliquin has set a new, murky ethical standard that will be difficult for future office holders to follow.
Poliquin could address these questions himself, explaining what he has done in the past and what he will do in the future to avoid conflicts. The Legislature could hold hearings and demand answers. But neither seems likely.
Poliquin says the charges against him are purely political, but because Maine does not directly elect its constitutional officers (they are chosen by Legislature’s majority party), he won’t be held accountable by the political process.
If the treasurer won’t address the questions and the Legislature won’t make him, this will be a legitimate political issue in legislative races next fall.