Nuggets from the notebook while considering the ambiguous ethical metric for a conflict of interest at the State House …

During last week’s Senate confirmation hearing of Department of Environmental Protection chief Darryl Brown, several Democrats said putting Brown in charge of the agency that permits major development projects was akin to making the “regulated the regulator.”

The argument stemmed from Brown’s ownership of Main-Land Development, the Livermore Falls engineering firm that Brown founded in 1973 that is involved in several major development projects requiring DEP permitting, including the planned casino in Oxford County.

Although the new DEP chief said he was leaving the company to take the post, some Democrats argued Brown should either sell it or create a blind trust to remove all appearance of a conflict of interest. Brown said he was trying to sell the company, but Democrats wanted written assurance that he actually will.

During the floor debate, Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Brown’s appointment would put a black cloud over the DEP.

Alfond’s comments prompted some Republicans to counter that most legislators could be accused of having a conflict of interest. As part-time lawmakers, it is inevitable that legislators’ professional careers sometimes intersect, they argued.

They’re right about that.

Just last week, two GOP lawmakers advanced legislation that raised questions about a conflict.

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, who owns a restaurant in Ellsworth, is sponsoring legislation that changes language in the state law for tipping wait staff. Langley wants restaurant owners like himself to determine when wait staff should be able to pool tips. He also wants to strike language that makes it clear that servers own gratuities, not restaurants.

Also last week, Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, announced that he was submitting a bill that would create benchmarks for reducing Maine’s dependence on oil. Fitts’ plan contains several methods to reach that target, including the pursuit of offshore wind.

Fitts, who is also the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, works for Kleinschmidt Associates, an engineering company involved in energy projects. Kleinschmidt is best known for hydro-power projects, but according to its website, it’s also becoming increasing involved in offshore wind power development.

A representative for the company recently attended the Maine Wind Working Group’s Maine Wind Energy Conference at the Augusta Civic Center.

Fitts’ connection to the wind industry has made him an easy target for opponents of wind power proliferation. He dismissed the perceived conflict when asked about it this week.

“Everyone wants to find the conflict, the snake in the grass,” Fitts said. “But every legislator in the building is conflicted if you were take that same standard and apply it to everyone else. It’s the nature of being part-time legislators.”

Democrats aren’t immune to conflict questions. Republicans dogged former Senate President Libby Mitchell for allegedly working to exclude bowling alleys from the list of recreational services that would have been assessed new taxes in the now-repealed tax reform law. Mitchell’s son owns a bowling alley in Portland.

Two years ago, Rep. Brian Bolduc, D-Auburn, proposed legislation that would have eliminated merit pay for teachers. Bolduc was looking to become a teacher at the time, and some local letter writers argued the bill would have made it possible for Bolduc to enter his profession at a higher salary.

Maine law says that a legislator with a conflict of interest in a particular measure should not try to influence it and has “an affirmative duty” to abstain from voting. But lawmakers often invoke Fitts’ defense, which is that perceived conflicts are a byproduct of expertise in citizen legislatures like Maine.

But just as problematic as a conflict of interest is discovering which lawmakers might have one. According to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan organization that monitors government transparency and ethics policies, the state does a poor job disclosing the financial interests of its lawmakers.

How poor? In 1999, 2006 and 2008, the Center for Public Integrity gave Maine an “F” for disclosing information about legislator employment, personal business activities, clients, investments, real property holdings and leadership positions in organizations.

Given that performance, one wonders how Maine will perform when the center performs its nationwide audit to rank each state’s risk for corruption. The investigation begins this year, and results will be posted in 2012.

Pocket change

The national Republican PAC that dumped $400,000 worth of attack ads in several key legislative races last fall could be assessed the largest ethics fine in Maine history.

The Maine Ethics Commission has recommended that the group pay a $41,000 penalty for a late campaign finance report filing in the final days before the election. According to the recommendation, the late filing prevented several Democratic candidates from receiving Maine Clean Elections funds in time to respond to the ads.

The Republican State Leadership Committee said the late filing was unintentional. Several published reports stated that the RSLC was affiliated with GOP operative Karl Rove. A spokesman for the PAC said the group has no relationship with Rove.

As Colin Woodard reported in Down East, the attack ads were criticized by both Democrats and Republicans, including the alleged beneficiaries.

On Saturday, the Maine Democratic Party hailed the fine recommendation, which still must be approved by the commission before it’s assessed.

But despite the historic size of the fine, it’s unlikely the penalty will make much of a dent in the RSLC’s wallet, or act as much of a deterrent if it decides to operate here in the future. According to disclosure document, the RSLC had a war chest of about $70 million last year. It spent more than $1.1 million in attack ads during the California attorney general election alone.

With that kind of money the RSLC can chalk up the $41,000 to a rounding error.

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