Study: Maine government can improve safeguards against corruption

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The preliminary results of the State Integrity Investigation can be reviewed at stateintegrity.org.

AUGUSTA — Maine is receiving some low marks in a national analysis measuring state government and its vulnerability to corruption.

The study, dubbed the State Integrity Investigation, is conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, a prominent investigative news operation. The final results of the report are due March 19, but the preliminary grades show an array of weaknesses in government accountability laws and procedures.

Among the deficiencies are poor protections against conflicts of interest for legislators, no independent agency to enforce ethics within the governor’s office, unlimited campaign donations to political parties and no provision to prevent outgoing, high-level state officials from entering the private sector that they once regulated. 

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The state also received mixed results for the strength of its public records law. The quality of information generated by Freedom of Access Act requests was given high marks, as was citizens’ legal right to request public documents. However, the study said citizen appeals to denied requests were cost-prohibitive for most Mainers. Additionally, there is no mechanism to prevent agencies or officials from stalling before turning over public documents.

The report, initiated last year, evaluated 14 categories of state-level transparency, including campaign financing and government accountability. Approximately 330 “corruption risk factors” were graded within the 14 categories.

The Center for Public Integrity enlisted investigative journalists in all 50 states to assess the risk factors. Each category required two sources. All grades are peer-reviewed. 

The Maine analysis was conducted by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, an investigative nonprofit that distributes its work to several news publications, including the Sun Journal. 

The preliminary results assign three grades to corruption indexes: “strong,” “fair” and “weak.” Letter grades, along with a statewide score, will be assigned when the full report is released in March.

The early data makes it difficult to compare Maine with other states. However, it shows strengths and deficiencies in Maine’s accountability and transparency laws.

The state received high marks for requiring lobbyists to disclose spending on specific legislation and making that information readily available to the public. The way the Legislature conducts its budget process was awarded strong scores. However, it received deductions for the lack of public access to the back-room deals that typically forge the final product. 

The judicial selection process also received strong transparency ratings. 

The study highlighted a series of shortcomings in asset disclosure for public officials. While lawmakers, constitutional officers, the governor and Cabinet members are required to annually disclose their income, there are no rules requiring them to report assets such as property holdings, financial stakes in a particular business or stock investments.

Transparency advocates often argue that asset disclosure is an important safeguard against decisions that might financially benefit lawmakers.

The report gives low accountability grades for the governor’s office, citing again the absence of asset disclosure for Cabinet members and the chief executive. 

The state also has no law preventing the governor or Cabinet-level officials from setting up nonprofit organizations that can be used to reward political supporters or evade campaign-finance rules. 

The executive branch received low marks for nonexistent rules prohibiting the hiring, firing and promoting of family members or cronyism.  

Maine also has no “revolving-door” law. Such a rule would prevent department heads, such as commissioners for state agencies, from leaving state government to work in the industry that the official was once charged with regulating.

Such restrictions are typically designed to prevent former bureaucrats from capitalizing on their connections within their former agency while other companies remain at a disadvantage. 

The state’s ethics agency was awarded mixed reviews. Low grades for the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices were assessed primarily because the agency isn’t empowered to carry out independent audits of the executive branch.

The commission used to have that authority to initiate probes of lawmakers until the Legislature inadvertently removed it two years ago. This session the Legislature passed LD 1150 restoring that ability. However, the commission still has no oversight of the executive branch.

The commission’s enforcement powers are almost exclusively confined to the legislative branch. Even there, the commission is prevented from independently initiating an investigation into suspected ethical breaches; an outside complaint must first be generated. 

Maine’s campaign-finance laws were generally considered strong, particularly for regulations governing the contributions and spending of individual candidates. Finance laws received demerits because of nonexistent limits on donations to political parties and political action committees. 

The study is also critical of the ability of PACs to support or oppose candidates, even candidates who receive public financing for participating in the Maine Clean Election Act.  

smistler@sunjournal.com

This story was clarified to add information regarding LD 1150.

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