AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers Wednesday will debate a bill aimed at strengthening the state’s ethics code for executive branch officers and employees, including those who run the biggest departments in state government.

The bill is the result of a document-shredding scandal that erupted after a 2012 Sun Journal records request that sought information from the Maine Centers for Disease regarding funding awards for the state’s 27 Healthy Maine Partnerships.

Instead of providing the documents sought by the newspaper, Maine CDC supervisors ordered the documents destroyed. One employee refused, and she ultimately filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit.

A 2014 investigation by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, ordered by the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, found, among other things, that CDC officials ordered documents destroyed and created others to fulfill the Sun Journal’s request.

The investigation also revealed that several CDC employees grappled with the ethics of the situation but were unsure how to handle it. Those who went to supervisors found little help.

“Our comprehensive review of the CDC document-shredding scandal showed a significant lapse in ethical guidelines for state employees under the LePage administration,” Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, said in a prepared statement issued Tuesday.

Kruger, the chief sponsor of the bill and the House chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, said lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were in agreement the state needed “stronger and more clear ethics guidelines for employees.”

“The incidents of shredding documents and employee intimidation are unacceptable,” Kruger said.

His measure would require the Department of Administrative and Financial Services to develop a consolidated code of ethics and conduct for state employees.

“I would also require the department to implement procedures for employees who need guidance on ethics or want to report ethics violations,” Kruger said.

Some lawmakers and LePage’s administration have balked at the estimated $1 million cost of the new rule.

Alex Willette, a spokesman for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, said that cost is based on what the Maine Ethics Commission spends to administer the state’s election and campaign finance laws.

“I think they are missing the mark,” Willette said Tuesday. “Especially if you look at the Maine Ethics Commission.” Willette said with six people on staff the commission spends about $580,000 a year monitoring the ethics of legislative candidates and ballot campaigns. “They are talking about us monitoring the ethics of over 10,000 state employees, not including the legislative branch, and they want us to do it with one additional employee and do even more work than the Ethics Commission does.”

Willette said LePage’s administration wasn’t opposed to implementing stronger and clearer ethics rules for state workers but it doesn’t believe it can be achieved on the cheap.

“We are just asking the Legislature to be realistic. They are asking the executive branch to do more and more without giving us the adequate resources to it,” Willette said. He said if lawmakers wanted to make ethics a priority, “they should fund it and not just try to implement it on a shoestring.” 

Kruger is expected to introduce an amendment to the bill to drastically reduce the measure’s price tag as suggested by the administration.  

“Setting a stronger ethical standard shouldn’t cost the taxpayers a million dollars,” Kruger said.

Also supporting the measure is Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, another member of the Government Oversight Committee. Katz said he too didn’t see why a unified ethics code would cost $1 million.

“Those of us who worked the bill didn’t anticipate this would be a cost item at all,” Katz said. “Essentially it’s someone pulling together the ethics policies that already exist in the various departments and trying to fold them into a single policy.”

He said the cost assigned the bill by the administration didn’t make any sense to him. “It looks to me like a law school internship program over the summer,” Katz said. “I just don’t see the huge costs or the ongoing costs.”

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