A panel reviewing the Legislature’s ethics laws is off to a good start by recommending that the public be allowed to file complaints and that hearings on valid complaints be conducted in public. To complete its task, the committee, which meets two more times next month, must still consider whether Maine’s conflict of interest rules are strong enough and re-examine the requirements for appointment to the Ethics Commission.
The Presiding Officers’ Advisory Committee on Legislative Ethics last week tentatively agreed to allow the public to file complaints about legislator ethics with the Commission on Governmental Ethics on Election Practices. Current law includes detailed requirements for lawmakers filing complaints with the commission, but is vague about whether third parties can also file complaints.
Last year, the Ethics Commission faced concerns that Rep. Thomas Saviello, the environmental manager of the International Paper mill in Jay and a member of the Natural Resources Committee, violated legislative ethics rules by voting on and developing policies that affected his employer. The commission received requests for an investigation from Rep. Saviello and the Conservation Law Foundation. After a closed-door meeting, the commission allowed Rep. Saviello to withdraw his request and later voted 2-2 to not pursue the CLF complaint. Two commission members said they felt they did not have jurisdiction to investigate a complaint from an entity other than a lawmaker, despite assurances from the Attorney General’s Office that it could.
This left the public with no place to go when they believe a lawmaker has acted improperly.
The ethics advisory committee, created by House Speaker John Richardson and Senate President Beth Edmonds, was right to make fixing this problem a priority. The group took the additional step of recommending that Ethics Commission proceedings be conducted in public once it decides a complaint should be investigated.
Another problem in the Saviello case was that the commission was missing its fifth, tie-breaking member. The requirements that the fifth member be chosen from a list agreed upon by each caucus in the House in Senate is too stringent and resulted in that seat remaining vacant for more than a year. The advisory commission should consider making the requirements for all five members the same.
State statutes prohibit lawmakers from voting on bills that would financially benefit them, but it has no prohibition against lawmakers serving on committees that regulate their employers, or in the Saviello case, formulate, change and oversee the enforcement of laws that the lawmaker is charged with upholding for his employer. Although this may be an extreme case, better statutory guidance would help identify inappropriate committee assignments and times when lawmakers should recuse themselves from votes.
More transparency, clear standards and a public complaint process will go along way toward fixing major shortcomings in state ethics rules.