AUGUSTA – A bipartisan group of legislative leaders is supporting a bill that would alter the conflict-of-interest law that prompted a Cabinet member to resign last month and brought new scrutiny to the state’s Board of Environmental Protection.

L.D. 1575, drafted by the LePage administration, is scheduled for a public hearing and a work session Friday before the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

It would allow commissioners of the Department of Environmental Protection and members of the BEP who have received a certain percentage of their income from federal Clean Water Act permit holders in the past two years to serve in those positions, unlike current law.

It also would establish a recusal process to prevent them from directly overseeing approval of such permits, a practice allowed under a similar federal law.

“That is the main purpose of (the bill) — it would conform to the federal standards,” said Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage.

Darryl Brown resigned as DEP commissioner on April 27, after the Attorney General’s Office told him that he was ineligible to continue serving unless he could show financial documents proving that he did not meet the 10 percent income threshold.

LePage said at the time that he wanted to change the law.

Brown now works in the State Planning Office. Bennett said the governor will not reappoint Brown as DEP commissioner even if the new measure is passed.

Lawmakers said the proposal is critical to getting the BEP working again. The 10-member citizen panel has postponed two meetings, as members wait for the attorney general to scrutinize their financial records and determine whether each one is eligible.

“We can’t afford to have the board not functioning right now. There are issues in front of them,” said state Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, the Senate chair of the environment committee. “So hopefully, if we resolve this issue, they’ll be able to work with the AG about how this actually works, the mechanism to do it, and they’ll be able to serve at their next board meeting.”

Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, another member of the committee, said it’s unclear whether any board members are ineligible to serve, but it is important to have a course of action if they are.

“We are not interested in weakening the conflict-of-interest laws in this state,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to recognize that with citizens’ boards, at times, there could be conflicts, and if a conflict were to arise, it would be addressed appropriately, either through recusal or abstention.”

Steve Hinchman, the environmental attorney who first filed a complaint against Brown, said he thinks that changing the law is an “extremely bad idea, even assuming Darryl Brown is not reappointed.”

“Why would we ever lower our standards?” he said in an email. “This change would allow a commissioner with a direct conflict of interest to oversee state permits for that development, but not federal permits. I don’t know anyone who thinks that conflict of interest makes for better decision making.”

He said that because Maine has an integrated permitting system, it would add bureaucracy to split the process if a commissioner with a conflict were appointed.

“At the commissioner level, I will say, that if you went after someone like that it would create a nightmare — he is right about that,” Saviello said. “At the commissioner level, I am concerned. But at this point, I’m just worried about getting the board back.”

House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, said the issue is not about changing the law to accommodate current board members. “It’s about making sure that when appointments are made, or reappointments are made or work is done, that people can have faith in that work.” 

MaineToday Media State House Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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