September 16, 2019

Legislators claim agency didn’t file complete reports > Natural Resource Council of Maine disputes lawmakers’ allegations

AUGUSTA — Agencies that live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, says Rep. Henry Joy, R-Crystal.

Joy and Rep. John Buck, R-Yarmouth, say they have formally complained to a state watchdog, alleging the environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Council of Maine has filed incomplete reports about fund raising and lobbying.

The lawmakers filed their complaints with the state Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

But Peter Didisheim, advocacy director for the council, said the lawmakers’ complaint is a political attack and has no basis.

He expects the ethics commission to give the agency a clean bill of health at its April meeting.

The complaint stems from a Natural Resources Council appearance in Augusta in support of LD 2526, a bill designed to remove tax benefits from any company that fails to comply strictly with state environmental laws. The bill is sponsored by Rep. William S. Norbert, D-Portland.

Joy said if the bill to require strict compliance with state law was such a good idea, “I would expect its advocates to lead a little more by example.”

He said the council lists no sources of income to finance its lobbying but receives hundreds of thousands of dollars each year “from distant foundations and trusts to spread the agenda” of its clients.

Joy reported that his Internet search disclosed 16 grants to the council over four years that totaled $532,000. “I wonder if this is just the tip of the iceberg. This list is just those [donations] published on the Internet. I have no complaints that these groups want to give them money. But the law is clear that if [the council] is being paid to influence legislation, [it] should disclose it to the people of Maine.”

Buck was surprised that the agency reported 614 hours of lobbying during the first legislative session. “That number seems awfully low when you consider that they had seven lobbyists tracking over 70 bills. Obviously, we need truthful and accurate reporting to determine if they deserve their [nonprofit] eligibility. This investigation is particularly necessary given [the council’s] call before the Legislature to treat the business sector with such a heavy hand regarding environmental laws,” Buck said.

The council is preparing a response to the ethics commission and it will be delivered next week.

“They will find no wrongdoing and this will blow over promptly,” Didisheim said.

He said the complaint was filed because the council testified that companies that receive tax increment financing and business and equipment tax reimbursement benefits must adhere to environmental laws or lose their tax benefits.

The agency has a “rigorous” accounting procedure that separates donations that can be used for lobbying and those that cannot. Any investigation will determine that the law was followed to the letter, he said.

The report on lobbying hours will also be proved accurate, he said. The agency kept a strict report on the hours of lobbying before the Legislature. The advocacy director forecast that the ethics commission will determine that no action is warranted.

“We anticipate no problem,” he said Thursday.

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