AUGUSTA — State employees working for the Maine Legislature have had their salary and benefits information shielded from a state-operated, public database that provides the same information on all other state workers.

While the salary information for partisan and non-partisan employees at the Maine Legislature remains public information, officials have been unable to explain exactly why that data isn’t being loaded into the disclosure website, Maine Open Checkbook.

The data gap was discovered during a Sun Journal review of the ten highest paid employees in the Legislature and the governor’s office.

The checkbook site was championed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage during his first term in office and the site is updated annually with data from all the state’s agencies and departments, including the governor’s office and the judicial branch.

And while LePage’s staff and the staffs of the governors’ offices in New Hampshire and Vermont were able to provide salary data for staff members within those offices within 24 hours, it took staff within the Maine Legislature eight days to produce the data.

Grant Pennoyer, the executive director of the Legislative Council, the Legislature’s chief financial officer of sorts, said it wasn’t fully clear why or how legislative salary data was being excluded from the public disclosure portal.

In a message to the Sun Journal, Pennoyer wrote that the practice of not sharing legislative salary data publicly predated the current state controller, who also did not know when the practice started or exactly why.

But Pennoyer said he believed it was because state lawmakers at one point were distrustful of the accounting system being used for all state employees and decided to use a different system.

“The exclusion of the Legislative Salary Data predated him so he didn’t have all the background,” Pennoyer wrote of his conversation with the controller. “I believe the Legislature may have had some concerns about the accuracy of the data that was stored in the accounting system as the Legislature chose to not use all of the elements of the Human Resources component of the accounting system.”

Pennoyer did seem to indicate he was looking into ensuring the data was added to the disclosure portal.

“How we get the salary data for the Legislature included in the portal will take some coordination between the House, Senate, Executive Director’s Office and the Office of the State Controller,” Pennoyer wrote.

Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for LePage, said the governor’s office has repeatedly asked that legislative expenses, including salaries, be loaded into the disclosure portal, the way it is for all other state employees but so far, lawmakers have resisted. 

Bennett said LePage, who claimed to be the most-transparent governor in Maine history, is often excessively criticized by his rivals in the Legislature for being secretive.

“This is another example of the Legislature not following the laws they expect the executive branch to follow,” Bennett wrote in an email to the Sun Journal. “The Legislature demands transparency in government, but has exempted itself from the (Freedom of Access Act.)”

And while Pennoyer did quickly release the salary data for the non-partisan staff in his office, the delay by officials within the Legislature on partisan staff data was clearly in conflict with the intent of Maine’s open records laws, Bennett said.

“They shield their political machinations from the public with their behind-closed-door policies,” Bennett said. “The Legislature insists on scrutinizing every financial detail of state agencies but hides its own salaries from the public. They make it very difficult for the public to determine their voting records, their compensation and their written communication between lobbyists, lawyers and special interest groups.”

Sigmund Schultz, a Maine attorney who frequently represents the media on FOAA matters and is also on the board of directors for the New England First Amendment Coalition, said state law makes it clear state employee salary data, including state retirement contributions and other benefits, are public record in Maine.

“Legislative staff salary data is a public record, just like all public employee salary data,” Schultz wrote in an email to the Sun Journal. “I have to assume that the state knows how much is being paid to all state employees, including legislative staff and that this information (salary and benefits) is readily available on request.”

Schultz said it may be reasonable that one office within state government did not have all the salary data, especially if that information was being maintained in different databases. But he also said Pennoyer’s answer raised questions about the veracity of the salary data that may be provided to the public.

“I would have questions about what accounting system is being used by whom to track which salaries,” Schultz wrote. “If there are multiple accounting systems and only some of them have accurate information, that raises questions. Of course, whether data is accurate or not does not control whether the information is public record and would not be a basis to delay or deny a response.”

Schultz also said if legislative officials know that certain salary information is inaccurate, they should release the accurate data and explain the previous inaccuracies.

Jodi Quintero, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Mark Eves, said the LePage administration has never formally asked the Legislature to participate in Maine Open Checkbook despite Bennett’s statement to the contrary.

“We do not have a record of a request from the Governor’s Office to participate in Open Checkbook,” Quintero wrote in an email to the Sun Journal. “If there was a request, it is a matter that would have been discussed by the Legislative Council.”

Quintero said Eves would be bringing the issue before legislative leaders “to see how we can move forward with entering the data into the Open Checkbook (website).”

Peter Steele, LePage’s director of communication, said the governor cannot compel the Legislature to act, but he hoped it would.

“The governor cannot compel the Legislature to be open and transparent,” Steele wrote, also in an email to the Sun Journal. “We hope the Legislature would no longer feel the need to hide their taxpayer-funded compensation and would be eager to share this information with the Mainers who work hard to pay their salaries.”

Open government advocates also urged the Legislature to make the staff salary data easily available.

“The public has a right to know how their tax money is being spent, by whatever part of state government,” said Mal Leary, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and the capital bureau chief for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. “(The public) should not have to file a formal request to get such basic information; it should be placed prominently on the agency’s website. Far too often, both elected and appointed officials forget they are paid by the taxpayers and the taxpayers have a right to know.”

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