In closed-door session, state ethics commission will hear complaint of lawmaker's conflict

·3 min read

Jun. 10—AUGUSTA — In an unusual closed-door session, the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Campaign Finances will hear a conflict of interest complaint against a member of the Legislature on Friday.

Details of the complaint, including who submitted it, the identity of the accused lawmaker and the alleged conflict of interest are considered confidential under the state's Freedom of Access Act. The details will become public only if the five-member commission determines that the complaint has merit and votes to conduct an investigation.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the commission, which includes two Democrats, two Republicans and one independent, said conflict of interest complaints are uncommon and the last time the commission considered one was in 2014.

That complaint involved an allegation against then-House Speaker Mark Eves, D-Berwick, over his support for a Medicaid expansion bill. Some Republican lawmakers claimed Eves had a conflict because he worked for a nonprofit organization that received Medicaid funds.

Although the commission never voted to investigate the charge, Eves made a public request for an advisory opinion from the panel after the Republican lawmakers held a news conference and raised conflict of interest issues.

Another former lawmaker, Rep. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway, was also the subject of speculation in 2014 over his legislative work to save a paper mill in East Millinocket, where he was employed.

Wayne said at the time that no complaints had been received concerning Stanley's sponsorship of the legislation, and Stanley had not approached the commission for guidance. Wayne said this week he could not comment on the 2014 cases, citing the law that requires the charges remain sealed if the commission votes against pursuit of an investigation.

State law defines a conflict of interest as occurring when a legislator or a member of the legislator's family "has or acquires a direct substantial personal financial interest, distinct from that of the general public, in an enterprise that would be financially benefited by proposed legislation."

Potential or perceived conflicts of interest are routinely, and sometimes necessarily, overlooked because Maine has a part-time, citizen legislature, which means lawmakers are also business owners and lawyers and doctors and teachers and employees of the state's largest companies.

Lawmakers are also often assigned to committees of jurisdiction by leadership based primarily on their professional backgrounds. Teachers or former teachers, for example, frequently serve on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee; lawyers serve on the Judiciary Committee, and retired police officers are commonly appointed to serve on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

The primary role of the ethics commission is to serve as the enforcement agency for the state's campaign finance and disclosure laws. Its duties relate largely to how state political campaigns are financed and disclosure by lobbyists working the Legislature. But the commission also provides advice to state lawmakers on issues of conflict of interest or interacting with administrative agencies, Wayne noted.

"We also receive statements of the sources of income from Legislators, constitutional officers and executive branch officers," he wrote in an email.

All of that information is largely public and either available on the commission's website or by request.

Under state law, the commission can only oversee sitting lawmakers and may only investigate charges of conflicts of interest, undue influence on an administrative state agency or abuse of office and position when contracting with a state agency.

Wayne said the commission will convene Friday in open session in a 9 a.m. online video meeting but will then take a vote to enter into executive session, and the panel's deliberations on the charge will be shielded from the public. "We will be by the book," Wayne said in a phone interview.

Under the law, the details of the complaint will only be made public if the commission votes to pursue an investigation into its legitimacy. The details of a complaint that the commission votes against investigating can only be made public if the lawmaker the complaint is against decides to disclose it.