April 13, 2012

LePage to sign bill closing ethics law loophole

The bill requires disclosure of state contracts to which lawmakers have some financial link.

By NAOMI SCHALIT and JOHN CHRISTIE Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

AUGUSTA – The state has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to organizations run by legislative leaders or family members of high-level state officials since 2003. But because of a loophole in ethics law, the public didn't know about it.

That won't happen again.

A bill requiring disclosure of such state contracts sailed to approval Tuesday in the House and Wednesday in the Senate. L.D. 1806 now awaits the signature of Gov. Paul LePage, who said Thursday he will sign it.

"It is reasonable to ask our elected leaders to disclose who is paying them," said LePage. "This will increase trust in the system and ensure that people have the opportunity to take appropriate action and make decisions accordingly."

LePage proposed the bill after a January investigation by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting revealed that organizations run by top legislators or the family members of executive branch officials had received $235 million in state contracts from 2003 to 2010.

In some cases, lawmakers served on the committees that controlled the spending that went to their organizations. But the spending was never disclosed to the public in state ethics filings.

Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, the senate president, was the lead sponsor of LePage's bill. He said Thursday that the bill's passage "means a greater degree of transparency" for citizens, who will be able to spot potential legislative conflicts of interests.

Nathaniel Heller, head of Global Integrity, which co-sponsored a 50-state ethics-in-government study that recently gave Maine an "F," said the bill's passage "is an important step in the right direction when it comes to advancing transparency and accountability in Maine's government. In an era of limited budgets, it's especially crucial for Maine's citizens to know that every dollar spent by their government is being spent wisely," he said.

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.

For example, $98 million in state contracts went to Portland's Shalom House from 2003 to 2010. At that time, Sen. Joseph Brannigan, D-Portland, was executive director of Shalom House, and was also chair of the Appropriations and Health and Human Services committees. He was not required to disclose those payments.

The new law will require legislators, executive branch officials and constitutional officers, such as the attorney general and secretary of state, to report if organizations they or family members were affiliated with -- as owners or management-level employees -- were paid more than $10,000 annually by the state.

Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston proposed an additional amendment, which was adopted, requiring that lawmakers and executive branch officials report income above $2,000 to a corporation of which they are majority owner, even if the lawmaker or official isn't paid by the corporation.

Carey said he proposed the amendment after state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin failed to report almost $10,000 in dues paid to the Popham Beach Club, which he owns. Poliquin later amended his disclosure form to reflect the payments.

The legislation closes 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. 

Naomi Schalit and John Christie are senior reporters at the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service based in Hallowell.

Email: mainecenter@gmail.com

Web: pinetreewatchdog.org

 

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