IMPACT: New ethics effort in Maine

Governor, top Democrat back initiative linked to State Integrity Investigation

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 Updated:

Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

Joel Page

AUGUSTA, Maine  — Two of the state’s top political leaders are vowing a bipartisan effort to make government ethics, accountability and transparency key issues in the upcoming legislative session.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage and House Democratic leader Emily Cain are responding to a national report that gave Maine government an “F” for its potential for corruption.

Maine ranked 46th in the “State Integrity Investigation” by three nonpartisan groups that was released in mid-March.

Cain, the Democratic House leader who is running for a Senate seat from Orono, has proposed two linked initiatives that she hopes will lead to government ethics reform.

Cain said Tuesday she will ask her fellow lawmakers to form a bipartisan, joint select committee to consider ethics reform and report out a bill in the legislative session that begins in January, 2013.

“While the report didn’t reveal that Maine is corrupt, we have a lot of things to look at to do better,” Cain said, adding that she believes key areas of concern include nepotism, cronyism, legislative financial disclosure, government transparency and citizen access to information.

Cain on Tuesday submitted a “concept draft” bill, “An Act to Strengthen Maine's Ethics Laws and Improve Public Access to Information,” that she hopes will provide a vehicle for bipartisan reform proposals.

Cain said her reform effort could succeed where others have failed in the past in part because the public is more aware now of the potential for corruption.

“I think the fact that Maine had a public blemish in that report changes a mindset for the public and for legislators,” Cain said.

“And we can say to ourselves: why did we get scored that way and can we take a look at ourselves in the mirror and say what do we want to be known for?”

Both Cain and Gov. Paul LePage vowed after the integrity report’s release last spring to spearhead comprehensive government ethics reform proposals.

The report was based on research into 330 indicators in 14 categories, from procurement to campaign disclosure to lobbying. No state got an A, leading the report’s sponsors to conclude, “statehouses remain ripe for self dealing and corruption.”

Global Integrity collaborated with the Center for Public Integrity and Public Radio International on the investigation. In Maine, the research was done by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, based in Augusta. The Center’s research was then analyzed by the three sponsoring groups, which came up with the scores.

Maine got an F in nine of the 14 categories, including executive accountability, public access to information, civil service management, pension fund management, the insurance commission, legislative accountability, lobbying disclosure, ethics enforcement and redistricting.

The state got a D+ in judicial accountability and political financing and a C- in the budget process and procurement. It got one A: in internal auditing.

This week, LePage’s acting chief legal counsel, Michael Cianchette, said that the governor’s office is working with a University of Maine student to research and write omnibus ethics reform legislation.

That student, Shelbe Lane of Patten, will make the legislation the subject of her Honors College thesis. That, in turn, said Cianchette, will be turned into a bill from the governor’s office.

“Rewriting ethics laws and finding best practices is a big objective,” Cianchette said. And he said that while it may be unusual to hand the job over to a college student, Lane is up to the challenge.

“She’s an intelligent young Mainer who wants to undertake this public service and it will of course go through process in the governor’s office and the legislature to find the best way forward,” Cianchette said.

While the goal is to address a range of problems identified in the report, Cianchette said he believes the legislation will ultimately “focus in on a few red flag areas.”

Lane, 20, worked as an intern in LePage’s office in the fall of 2011. She said the work she’s undertaking now is daunting.

“I would say that at times, yes, it makes me a little nervous to think about what I will be doing,” Lane said. “But I am getting ready to go to law school next year, so I’m also looking at it as a good step to working on my skills to help me through my career.”

And Lane said her interest in ethics reform went beyond the personal. Pride in her state motivates her.

“I am a student and I am always going after straight A’s,” she said. “This report card is not my own, but what I hope to accomplish is a better report card and ranking for the State of Maine in the form of straight A’s!”

Both Cain and Cianchette said the reform efforts will not be politicized.

“Anything I’m doing I want to do in collaboration with the governor’s office, Republicans in the legislature, everyone,” Cain said.

“What I’d like to see happen is not only an end result that increases trust in state government, but a process that reflects and leads to an increased trust as well.”

“It’s not a Republican or Democrat issue,” said Cianchette. “It’s a transparency issue.”

The bipartisan theme extends to Lane: Her thesis advisor is Cianchette, a Republican, while Democrat Cain sits on her thesis review committee.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, non-profit news service based in Hallowell. Email: mainecenter@gmail.com. Web: pinetreewatchdog.org.