Cleaning up Maine's sleaze

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  March 18, 2009

Also, under Maine law, legislators can openly represent their occupational interests in their legislative actions. Earlier this decade, Representative Thomas Saviello, then a Wilton Democrat (now an Independent), who worked for the International Paper Co. (now Verso Paper) as its "environmental manager," was accused of leaning on the Department of Environmental Protection to benefit his employer in his role as a member of the Natural Resources Committee.

In 2006, the Legislature, prompted by the Saviello controversy, established a commission which produced a report recommending a variety of ethics reforms. The three most important were to permit members of the public to make an ethics complaint about a legislator to the Ethics Commission, to prohibit a legislator from exercising undue influence on a state agency, and to broaden the definition of a legislative conflict of interest, which now is defined narrowly. But only the recommendation allowing the public to complain about a legislator was enacted.

Representative Trinward will attempt to get a measure passed this legislative session (it is still being drafted) to broaden the legislative conflict-of-interest law, but she admits "it's an uphill battle." Senate Democratic leadership will probably vote with Republicans to block it.

And here is a government ethics problem that is so accepted it is not usually seen as such: many state boards and commissions have been created with the idea that special interests should be represented on them. This might sound reasonable — "stakeholders" should debate and decide the issues. But in practice, business interests, which are overrepresented in funding politicians, are overrepresented on the boards.

Last year Baldacci withdrew organic blueberry farmer Deborah Aldridge's nomination to the Board of Pesticides Control because of lobbying against her by farmers' groups unhappy with her criticism of certain pesticide uses. The Agriculture Committee had voted against her seven to three. But she had been nominated to the "organic farmer" slot on the board! An alternative procedure to enshrining special interests would be to create boards made up of smart, disinterested citizens.

Because of the assumption that conflict of interest is normal, because ethical end-runs are allowed, it's likely Maine's government will continue to serve money rather than the people — unless the people demand otherwise.

Lance Tapley can be reached at ltapley@roadrunner.com.

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