Lobbyists and campaign contributors are among the private interests paying for Governor John Baldacci’s upcoming trip to Asia, though the state forbids officials from accepting gifts. At the same time, taxpayers are paying for Baldacci’s wife to accompany him, though she is not a state employee. Taxpayers are also paying for nine other state employees to go, though the governor has frozen state-employee travel to the “absolute minimum necessary to maintain effective operations” of government.
And since the Baldacci Administration is reluctant to fully explain these arrangements, it is no surprise that the Washington DC-based Center for Public Integrity gives Maine an “F” on governors’ financial-disclosure laws, ranking it 43rd of the 50 states.
At a time when Baldacci has cut or is demanding cuts in services to the mentally ill, poor people on Medicaid, needy children, the unemployed, and others, and when Baldacci and legislative leaders agree taxes are too high, state officials nevertheless see expensive trips abroad as business-as-usual.
Not that there isn’t high-level criticism. Baldacci recently attacked five Maine Turnpike Authority officials for taking a $26,000 trip to Austria for a trade-group meeting. But from October 27 to November 3 Baldacci himself is leading 29 officials and business people to Japan and South Korea, hoping to attract interest in Maine products. This “trade mission,” Baldacci’s fourth, will cost $175,000, a good chunk of it paid by taxpayers, according to the Maine International Trade Center, the quasi-state agency organizing it (at deadline, the center had not clarified the exact taxpayers’ tab).
In a society that rarely questions government’s role in aiding private enterprise, such trade missions are seldom scrutinized. But the trip has elements that raise questions among a few legislators and a good-government group:
LOBBYISTS FOOT THE BILL: The 10 private concerns covering Democrat Baldacci’s expenses are all represented on the trip and include the Maine Pulp & Paper Association, a trade organization, and the law firm Preti Flaherty Beliveau & Pachios; these two are major State House lobbyists and include heavy-hitter Baldacci campaign contributors. Participation costs up to $6000, depending on translators and other services. Twenty-two individuals have been charged $332 each for the governor and for one bodyguard, for a total of $7304, the trade center says.
No one contacted for this article suggests Baldacci is breaking the law. But there is a law and other rules on gifts that officials must heed:
“IMPROPER GIFTS TO PUBLIC SERVANTS” CRIMINAL LAW Violated if an official has “economic gain” from a gift given to influence the official’s actions.
STATE CODE OF ETHICS “No elected or appointed public official or employee should borrow or accept personal gifts from any person or entity which buys services from, or sells to, or is regulated by, his or her governmental agency.”
ON FAMILY TRAVEL The Code of Ethics also says, “Any use of public funds to benefit self, family, or friends will not be tolerated.”
ANNUAL WARNING Every year before Christmas, Administrative and Financial Services head Rebecca Wyke warns state workers: “It is against state policy for an employee to accept gifts from any person or business that conducts business, or expects to conduct business, with the State of Maine.”
THE GOV’S WIFE, TOO: Although Maine’s news media call the governor’s wife the state’s “First Lady,” she has no state-employee status or legislative appropriation. The state only began paying for Karen Baldacci’s travels last year, and officials will not say why, though her expenses on this trip are being covered because “she is serving in an official capacity on behalf of the people of Maine,” says the governor’s office.