In the wake of a study showing that fewer than half of 126 quasi-governmental state agencies say they have ethics rules despite prodding last summer by Governor John Baldacci, his administration is moving to force all of them to have codes that forbid conflicts of interest and other transgressions by officials.
The need for such codes on the part of the so-called “independent” agencies came to light when the Portland Phoenix broke the story of a $1342 restaurant dinner a Maine Turnpike Authority consultant bought for five authority officials and three other turnpike consultants in June of last year. The dinner featured filet mignon, lobster, and a $295 bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild wine (see “E-ZPass on Ethics,” by Lance Tapley, August 4, 2006). It was one of many turnpike feasts financed either by consultants holding lucrative contracts with the agency or by the coins the public throws into the toll baskets. The authority had no regulations prohibiting such excesses.
After this story, a squishy, whirring sound was heard across the state:
-Turnpike director Paul Violette first discounted that his agency should be bound by the kind of rules that have long prevented regular state departments from similar indulgences. But as the publicity mounted, he apologized to Governor Baldacci, his agency adopted an ethics code, and turnpike managers and board members submitted to ethics retooling seminars.
-Baldacci commanded finance and administration commissioner Rebecca Wyke to push the independent agencies to adopt codes, if they hadn’t adopted them already, and she sent them a model. The governor doesn’t have direct power over these organizations, which include the University of Maine System (has a code), the Maine Humanities Council (has no code), the Maine State Housing Authority (has no code), and many smaller ones like the Kim Wallace Adaptive Equipment Loan Program Fund Board (has a code). But he threatened legislation to compel them to adopt one.
-The Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, a group of editors and reporters devoted to government accountability, released a study in February reporting that only 45 percent of the independent agencies said they had an ethics code as of the end of 2006, although most of the rest said they were on their way to adopting one. Thirty agencies, however, did not bother to respond to the coalition’s questionnaire, despite, as pointed out by Mal Leary, coalition president, all of them being bound to disclose such information to the public by Maine’s Freedom of Access law.
-The promised bill to force codes of ethics on recalcitrant agencies is expected to soon pop out of the legislative hopper. A draft provided by Commissioner Wyke says the agencies must “develop a Code of Ethics to guide the operations and financial administration” of their organizations. In perhaps its most far-reaching particular, it gives the state controller oversight of agencies’ compliance as it applies to finances.
Leary, dean of the State House press corps and operator of Capitol News Service, says he is optimistic the legislation will pass.