David Hughes may be innocent of any malfeasance, despite his inability to account for his Clean Elections funding, but this determination is not for the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices to make.

This should fall under the purview of the attorney general, the exact same route the ethics panel dispatched the prior Lewiston legislative seat-holder, William Walcott, that Hughes sought to replace. Walcott has since pleaded not guilty to several charges relating to missing public funds.

It’s only equal. But not because of the glaring similarities between the cases of Walcott and Hughes: two candidates from downtown Lewiston vying for the same House seat, who utilized, but couldn’t account for, public funds of similar amounts ($4,874 for Walcott, $4,287 for Hughes).

Rather, it’s because of their key difference: Walcott is a Democrat, Hughes a Republican.

The ethics commission, and legislative ethics in general, must operate in the rarefied air above partisan politics. The very agency empowered to determine and render judgments on legislative conflicts of interest, cannot be accused – or even risk the perception – of having its own.

Which makes this Hughes review so interesting, and important. Hughes promises to have the matter squared by the time the commission meets, Jan. 25. He maintains his innocence, and there’s little reason to disbelieve him.

As unlike Walcott, who is accused of trying to concoct expenses to cover his tracks, Hughes is saying he made an error in judgment. He deserves fair treatment, and to be considered innocent before proven guilty.

Yet this doesn’t exempt him from a full investigation by the AG, which would accomplish two goals: relieve the ethics commission from making a decision that could tarnish its independence, and establish whether any criminal activity took place.

We would think Hughes would welcome a thorough review, in order to clear his name.

Protecting the ethics commission’s reputation is paramount, as well. By treating the Hughes and Walcott cases equally, the panel can prove its nonpartisan, independent nature, and reinforce confidence in its ability to look past politics, toward the public’s best interest.

It would, in a phrase, show the incorruptibility of ethics, and the commission charged with monitoring it.

Deviating from the Walcott course, though, could open the commission to claims of the contrary, which would undermine its important duties. Legislators are again debating ethics reform this session, and its success may depend on proving ethics in Maine are beyond reproach.

All things being equal, the commission knows what it should do.

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