Ethics panel wants state agencies, employees to disclosure campaign activity

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AUGUSTA — Campaign groups that enlist government agencies or their employees for political activity should have to disclose that participation in campaign finance filings, commissioners on the state ethics panel said Monday.

In a 4-1 vote, members of the Maine Ethics Commission chose to advocate for such a disclosure in a bill they’ll file for the upcoming legislative session, Jonathan Wayne, the commission’s executive director, said. The lone independent on the panel, Commissioner Margaret Matheson of Augusta, cast the sole dissenting vote.

The decision comes after a referendum campaign this year saw the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife advocate fiercely against the proposed ban on using bait, dogs and traps in Maine’s bear hunt. DIF&W employees appeared in anti-ban TV ads created by the referendum’s principal opposition group. Additionally, the DIF&W spent $31,000 of its own funds to defeat the ban.

Combined, the appearance in outside TV ads and the expenditure of its own funds made for an “exceptional” degree of advocacy, Wayne wrote in a memo to commissioners.

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“I can’t remember any other situation where state employees appeared in some sort of communication that was sponsored by a PAC or ballot question committee,” Wayne said.

The bear baiting referendum battle was fought by The Maine Wildlife Coalition Council, which opposed the ban, and Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, which supported it. The “no” vote won in the end, preserving the ability of hunters to use bait, dogs and traps on bears.

A judge in October ruled that the advocacy by DIF&W was legal, but on Nov. 1, the pro-ban group asked the ethics commission to investigate the Maine Wildlife Coalition Council for not disclosing the use of DIF&W staff time in commercials. Commissioners opted not to investigate the issue because Maine law currently does not consider state employee time as a contribution.

The proposed policy change approved by commissioners on Monday would alter the state’s definition of “contribution” to include personal services provided by government employees while they’re being paid by the state.

Had such a rule been in place this year, the Maine Wildlife Coalition Council would have been required to disclose the time spent by DIF&W employees appearing in television ads.

The National Conference of State Legislatures compiled a side-by-side comparison of each state’s law regarding political activity by public employees. Maine’s is relatively anemic in comparison to the most robust laws in states such as Iowa and Michigan, where state employees are barred from any and all political activity.

Emily Shaw, a former Maine resident and national policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, said the Maine Ethics Commission’s proposed new disclosure rule would be a step toward greater transparency.

“Maine has very little by way of ethics regulations on the executive branch,” Shaw said. “There should be more in that direction, so anything is helpful.”

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