In 2012, the state also received an F, scoring a 56, for a rank of 46th among the states. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the project and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
Trust not verify
Maine’s part-time “citizen” legislators, many from small towns in New England’s most sparsely populated state, have always prided themselves on working together.
Trust is the mantra here — not verify; a state of affairs that might not have satisfied Ronald Reagan. Management of the state’s $12.7 billion pension fund, for example, ranks 41st nationally in transparency, according to the State Integrity Investigation; it operates with few anti-corruption checks and balances. Oversight of the state’s elections is open to political interference. The judicial and executive branches police themselves. And the Human Rights Commission is woefully understaffed, sometimes leaving whistleblowers in the lurch.
These vulnerabilities, remnants of an era when conciliatory politicians dominated Augusta’s politics, are mirrored throughout state government.
“Everybody knows everybody here,” said Ann Luther, of the Maine League of Women Voters. “When we talk about clamping down on this stuff, it’s not just some distant ‘other,’ it’s people we know. That makes it hard.”
Access to information – when we’re good and ready
Transparency was an early casualty of partisan warfare.
In his first term, Gov. LePage, elected in 2010, expressed concern that the state’s open records act was being abused by political adversaries on “fishing expeditions.” Initially, LePage’s frustration was directed at the Portland Press Herald, until recently owned by billionaire financier S. Donald Sussman, who was then married to U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.
But growing antagonism and mutual distrust has led many reporters to lean more heavily on the state’s Freedom of Access Act for information.
As that process unfolded, the law’s loopholes, once considered minor, started to seem more glaring.
In 2013, for example, officials at Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in the process of responding to a request from the Sun Journal, destroyed documents describing the state’s decision-making process on millions of dollars in grants. Yet Maine’s open records act was too vague on the question of whether working drafts are public records to press charges, according to a deputy district attorney.
“People just assumed government was doing the right thing, until they found out that they weren’t,” said Judy Meyer, vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition.
“It was terrible that it happened, but good that people sat up and paid attention.”
But the law still lacks teeth, she said. Legislation gives public servants free rein to determine “reasonable” response times to requests. Predictably, controversial inquiries sometimes face long delays.
“What’s the punishment if you don’t comply? There is no recourse. The legislature continues to believe we can all get along and make this work through relationship-building,” she said.
Do-it-yourself ethics enforcement
Political rancor has also highlighted major gaps in the legislation governing Maine’s independent ethics enforcement agency — a key component to any state’s anti-corruption infrastructure.
For starters, the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices oversees only the legislative branch. The judiciary has a commission on ethics, but it has no enforcement power and hasn’t issued an advisory opinion since 2010. And when questions arise about executive branch ethics, there’s simply nowhere to turn for guidance.
“The thinking, among many people, is that agencies have an interest in policing themselves,” said Jonathan Wayne, the commission’s executive director. "Some states have decided you need a separate office to do this, and Maine hasn’t."
But lacking strong independent oversight, ethics debates are relegated to politicians, pundits and journalists.
In February, for example, LePage took issue with the findings of an investigator for the Human Rights Commission in a discrimination case. He asked that legal proceedings be postponed. The Commission’s director, fearing political interference, said no. Three days later, according to a Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting investigation, agency funding was put on hold.
Was this a breach of ethics? The law is unclear, and no ethics agency exists to pass judgment.