State Integrity Investigation

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Maine lawmakers, Gov. LePage close ethics disclosure loopholes


By Naomi Schalit and John Christie, ©Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

The state has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to organizations run by legislative leaders or the spouses of high-level state officials since 2003. But because of a loophole in ethics law, the public didn’t know about it.

That won’t happen again.

A bill to require disclosure of state contracts with legislators and executive branch officials has sailed to approval through the House and the Senate. The bill, L.D. 1806, now awaits the signature of Gov. Paul LePage, who said Thursday he will sign it.

““It is reasonable to ask our elected leaders to disclose who is paying them. It is good for the health of our democracy and the people of Maine,” said LePage.

“This will increase trust in the system and ensure that people have the opportunity to take appropriate action and make decisions accordingly.”

LePage proposed the bill after a January investigation by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting revealed that organizations run by top legislators or the family members of executive branch officials had received $235 million in state contracts between 2003 and 2010.

In some cases, lawmakers served on the committees that controlled the spending that went to their organizations.

But the spending was never disclosed to the public in state ethics filings.

Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, the senate president, was the lead sponsor of LePage’s bill. He said Thursday that the bill’s passage “means a greater degree of transparency” for citizens, who will be able to spot potential legislative conflicts of interests.

“They can be more confident that they’re aware of the circumstances surrounding individual legislators and their votes in the legislature,” said Raye.

Nathaniel Heller, head of Global Integrity, which co-sponsored a 50-state ethics-in-government study that recently gave Maine an “F,” said, the bill’s passage “is an important step in the right direction when it comes to advancing transparency and accountability in Maine’s government. It’s encouraging to see the governor and other political leaders respond to reporting about governance challenges in the state by adopting specific, evidence-based reforms.

“In an era of limited budgets, it’s especially crucial for Maine’s citizens to know that every dollar spent by their government is being spent wisely,” Heller said.

Current law requires that legislators or high-level state employees report state purchases of goods or services worth more than $1,000 only if they were purchased directly from the individual legislator or family member, not from a corporation or entity for which the legislator or family member works.

For example, $98 million in state contracts went to Portland’s Shalom House between 2003 and 2010. At that time, Sen. Joseph Brannigan, D-Portland, was executive director of Shalom House. He was also chair of the Appropriations and Health and Human Services committees. He was not required to disclose those payments from the state because they went to the organization he ran, not to him directly.

The new law will require legislators, executive branch officials and constitutional officers, such as the attorney general and secretary of state, to report if

Michael Carey

organizations they or family members were affiliated with — as owners or management-level employees — were paid more than $10,000 annually by the state. LePage’s original bill had proposed a $1,000 reporting trigger, but lawmakers amended that to the higher number.

Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston proposed an additional amendment, which was adopted, requiring that lawmakers and executive branch officials report income above $2,000 to a corporation of which they are majority owner, even if the lawmaker or official isn’t paid by the corporation.

“If that entity is making money, just the fact that you’re choosing not to pay yourself doesn’t mean that you don’t have to report where that money comes from,” said Carey.

Carey said he proposed the amendment after state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin failed to report almost $10,000 in dues paid to the Popham Beach Club, which he owns. Poliquin later amended his disclosure form to reflect the payments.

The legislation closes another loophole that has allowed lawmakers and high-level executive branch officials to avoid disclosing their income during their last year working in state government. If the disclosure form filing deadline fell after they left office or state employment, they could simply ignore the requirement.

“The public will now have access to the officials’ financial information for their last year in office,” said Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

Naomi Schalit and John Christie are senior reporters at the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service based in Hallowell. Email: mainecenter@gmail.com. Web:pinetreewatchdog.org

Filed under state corruption ethics government election politics watchdog corruptionrisk corruption integrity disclosure transparency

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Maine Governor, House Minority Leader push for reform after ‘F’ grade

Conservative Gov. Paul LePage and his liberal counterparts in the Maine state legislature disagree on many issues, but the two sides have found common ground: An ‘F’ on Maine’s report card is unacceptable. 

LePage, an outspoken Republican in his first term, is encouraging a piece of legislation that would expose state officials’ conflicts of interest and decrease the chances for legislators to line their own pockets with taxpayer money. Gov. LePage said this is the kind of reform that Maine needs to enact to improve the failing grade Maine received on its Corruption Risk Report Card.

On the legislative side, House Minority Leader Emily Cain, (D-Orono), said the report card raises substantive issues, and might inspire a bipartisan task force to review the findings and suggest changes going into the next legislative session.

The reform-minded responses are an encouraging sign for a state with nine ‘F’s and two ‘D’s out of the 14 categories under review in the State Integrity Investigation.

In the current session, LePage has already introduced LD 1806, a bill that would require public disclosure from state legislators, constitutional officers and executive branch members if the official or the official’s family member has an ownership or management-level position in a company that receives more than $10,000 from the state.

The proposed increase in transparency would set Maine on a path to an improved grade on its Corruption Risk Report Card, LePage told the Bangor Daily News:

"This is the direction we need to move in to improve Maine’s grade. It’s clear that many states struggle with this issue. However, it is an issue that I will continue to work on improving on behalf of the Maine taxpayer."

Cain floated the idea of a task force to review the problems highlighted in Maine’s failing grade, saying the group would “focus on feedback from the public and experts.”

A spokeswoman for Cain said the House Minority Leader was taking the idea to other leaders in the legislature to gain approval, in the hopes that the group could make suggestions before the legislature reconvenes in 2013. The spokeswoman said the task force would not look into “any one specific point from the report, but potentially use the report as a jumping-off point.”

With the statements from LePage and Cain, Maine becomes the fifth state to use State Integrity Investigation findings to support reform proposals, joining Delaware, Michigan, Ohio and South Carolina.

If you live in Maine and want to encourage your state legislators and Gov. LePage to enact reforms, click here to send the Maine Corruption Risk Report Card and a personalized message to your elected officials. Keep track of this and other movements toward more open, accountable state government on our Reform Efforts page.

Read more about reform in Maine from the Center for Public Integrity.

(Photo credit: Albany NY.)

Filed under Paul LePage government reform maine corruption scandal state politics Cain Bangor Daily News

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State Integrity Investigation raises questions about good government

By Gary Childress

Global Integrity’s research on corruption laws with state by state ranking certainly did bring questions in my mind.  I do understand that the research did not attempt to locate corruption but only looked at the structure to protect against corruption. One would expect a correlation between good corruption prevention structure and sound management and fiscal results.  Quite the reverse appears to be the case.

Recently 24/7 Wall St. published a study of the best-run statesWyoming was number one, Nebraska number two and if my memory serves me correctly the Dakotas were near the top.  The states at or near the top of Global Integrity’s list were typically the worst run states.

The various municipal credit rating organizations to the most part rate the bottom of the Global Integrity list higher credit than the top.  In fact most of the states with severe credit risk are near the top of Global’s ranking.  Why is there not a correlation?

I am not challenging your research, quite the reverse.  The fact that it leaves a question proves its merit.  As stated above: Why is there not a correlation?  This could be the question of another study.  The answers might be helpful to all states. 

There are likely many things going on other than the legal structure.  What are they?

Gary Childress is a retired businessman who divides his time between Wyoming and Connecticut.

You can email your state’s corruption risk report to your legislators card here.

Filed under PRI global integrity government iwatch nebraska open government politics transparency wyoming

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Massachusetts opens state’s “checkbook” for public review

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is in need of a political reformation. The state’s last three Speakers of the House, all Democrats, have been convicted of felonies. Last week Salvatore DiMasi (pictured, right), the most recent of the disgraced former Speakers, entered a Kentucky prison to begin an eight year sentence for corruption.

Beyond the shadows of the Massachusetts Statehouse, the Office of the Governor  has now come under scrutiny.  According to a new report,  the administrations of the last three Massachusetts Governors, all Republicans, failed to save office e-mails, meaning crucial documents that would’ve shown how the state does business have vanished from record.

These findings, uncovered by the Boston Globe on Wednedsay, cast yet another pall on the state’s efforts at transparency. But there may yet be hope for a new era of responsive, accountable government in the commonwealth.

Earlier this week, Massachusetts launched a new website called “Open Checkbook,” a massive database that tracks state spending and contracts. The website’s data includes big-picture information, like a pie chart with a subject-by-subject breakdown of how the state is spending its fiscal year 2011 budget of $51.3 billion; according to the site, 20 percent  — or about $10 billion — of that total will be spent on Medicaid payments, which makes up the biggest chunk of the budget.

But Open Checkbook goes much deeper than a simple pie chart. One section of the site lists employee salaries, which can be indexed by employee name, department, job title — or, perhaps most interestingly, by total compensation.  Ranked in this way, it becomes clear that the most lucrative state jobs can be found at the University of Massachusetts: Of the 50 highest-paid state employees, 48 of them work at UMass.

The list reveals that Michael Collins (pictured, right), Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is the highest-paid public employee in Massachusetts, earning $717,758 during the last fiscal year. That number is actually a decrease from Collins’ earnings in fiscal year 2010 of $739,900, which also appears on Open Checkbook.

Former employees at the University of Massachusetts are also responsible for the largest pensions in the state, according to the website.  Nine out of the top 11 public pension plans in the state, all of which are over $159,000 annually, go to former UMass professors or administrators.

Another facet of Open Checkbook allows users to drill down into the state’s vendor payments.  That database is exhaustive, ranging from the $435 million paid to the Boston Public Health Commission, to a $1.02 Medicaid payment made to the Franklin Medical Group on September 30, 2011.

While an admirable effort at transparency, Open Checkbook is not complete, as fully 28 percent of the state’s spending falls under a series of exemptions which are listed on the website. Nevertheless, the site is a welcome tool in a state often mired in political scandal, and a step toward Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez’s stated goal of “rebuilding the public’s trust in government.”

To that end, not even the governor himself, who also championed the project, is exempt from the site’s data net: According to Open Checkbook, Deval Patrick is the state’s 1,541st highest-paid employee, with total compensation of $129,111 last fiscal year.

(Source: stateintegrity.org)

Filed under Massachusetts corruption scandal indictments government politics campaign donations campaign finance