Ethics laws? According to knowledgeable sources, Maine legislators don’t need no stinkin’ ethics laws. Those sources should know, because they’re all former Maine legislators.
“I think the more emphasis you put on [ethics] . . . the more aspersions you’re going to cast on yourselves,” said then-state Representative Paul Jacques, a Waterville Democrat, in a 1990 Associated Press story.
“There’s a vague feeling that something might be wrong with the ethics of Maine legislators . . . but no real concrete evidence of a widespread problem begging for a legislative solution,” wrote then-state Senate President Beth Edmonds, a Democrat from Freeport, in a 2008 op-ed piece.
In 2009, then-state Senate President Libby Mitchell told Capitol News Service, “I think we are pretty open. We are a small state and everybody knows everybody, and people in a district know the people they elect and what they
do for a living.”
For more than a quarter-century, these attitudes prevailed in Augusta, thwarting attempts to institute reasonable limits on politicians’ activities and sufficient disclosure of their finances. Majority Democrats reacted as if they’d been personally insulted whenever someone proposed they disclose gifts they received from lobbyists, that they didn’t use their elected offices to directly benefit themselves or their employers, or that they reveal their close family members’ sources of income.
As former Democratic state Senator Joe Brannigan of Portland told the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting in 2012, after it revealed that the nonprofit organization he headed had received $98 million in state money during a period when Brannigan served as co-chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, “Would you know any more if you wrote it down on a piece of paper that nobody looks at?”
For decades, the Center for Public Integrity has been ranking states on the strength of their ethical standards, and Maine has consistently received failing grades. After each report card, there were attempts to close the glaring loopholes in the state’s laws. Without exception, these efforts were overwhelmingly defeated or watered down to the point where they had no impact.
In 2006, for instance, after state Senator Tom Saviello, then an independent from Wilton, attempted to use his position on the Natural Resources Committee to pressure the Department of Environmental Protection into dropping an investigation of the paper mill where he worked, a special advisory committee was formed to study Maine’s ethics laws. The group proposed a comprehensive package of corrections that included allowing ordinary citizens to file complaints against legislators and broadening the legal definition of conflict
Many of these recommendations ended up in bills sponsored by Senate President Edmonds and Speaker of the House Glenn Cummings of Portland. They suffered crushing defeats, engineered behind the scenes by soon-to-be Senate president Mitchell. Instead, the Legislature approved a study of ethics, even though that’s what the advisory committee had just completed. In a later session, a few small changes from the Edmonds and Cummings bills were approved in much-weakened form.
In 2009, Democratic state Representative Andrea Boland of Sanford, whose day job was selling vitamin supplements, sponsored a bill that would have required health-insurance policies to cover the cost of such products. Another Boland measure would have mandated the state include nutritional supplements in its health-system planning. “I don’t call it a conflict of interest,” Boland told the Kennebec Journal. “I call it a convergence of interest.”