With a conflicted heart


Ryan Tipping may be the most honest member of the Maine Legislature.

That’s not really a compliment.

The state law that governs legislative ethics can be roughly translated from the legalese thusly: Do whatever the hell you want. Just don’t get caught.

As ethics laws go, that’s pretty strict. In Illinois and Louisiana, lawmakers are required to commit criminal acts. And in our nation’s capital, the president is allowed to craft his foreign policy to produce maximum benefits for his business interests. Until he’s impeached.

But back to Tipping, a Democratic state representative from Orono, who took an outside job with an advocacy group pushing last November’s referendum slapping a 3-percent income-tax increase on rich people to pay for improved schools. Legally, Tipping did everything right. He got clearance from the state ethics commission. The money he earned was duly reported on campaign finance and financial disclosure forms. He apparently had no illicit contact with the Russian government.

So he’s clean, right?

Not exactly.

As the Maine Republican Party and GOP Gov. Paul LePage pointed out, Tipping is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee, the very group that will have a major influence on whether the tax hike goes into effect as the voters intended, or is reduced or eliminated as LePage is demanding.

Technically, the chairmanship isn’t a conflict of interest because Tipping doesn’t benefit financially from the higher tax. But it certainly has the appearance of a conflict, because if he supports the increase, it’ll look as if he’s doing the bidding of his former employer. That could tarnish not only Tipping’s reputation but that of the entire Legislature. (It could, but it won’t because the Legislature’s reputation is already thickly coated in layers of decaying weasel entrails.)

Tipping should have anticipated this controversy and avoided it by not taking the job, but he can be excused for believing it would all come to nothing. Legislators have a long history of behaving in seemingly sleazy ways, while somehow not violating ethical standards. For example:

In 2013 and 2015, Time Warner Cable put on lavish two-day conferences for a select group of state House and Senate members at the ritzy Inn By The Sea in Cape Elizabeth. This purveyor of overpriced channel packages, sluggish internet speeds and frustrating service calls picked up the tab for attendees’ meals and rooms, but due to a glitch in the ethics rules, legislators didn’t have to disclose these “gifts.” To this day, we still don’t know who took advantage of Time Warner’s “hospitality.”

In 2014, Democratic state Rep. Stephen Stanley of Medway sponsored a bill to amend certain energy agreements because the owners of an East Millinocket paper mill said they needed that change to reopen the facility and rehire its 200 workers. One of those workers was Stanley. No conflict there, ruled the ethics commission.

For years, Stacey Fitts, a former Republican state representative from Pittsfield, advocated for bills favoring the wind-power industry, while employed by an engineering firm that did work for the wind-power industry. Asked by the Portland Press Herald about the appearance of conflict, Fitts dismissed it as “a perception [of a problem] that isn’t real.”

In 2009, Libby Mitchell, then the Democratic president of the state Senate, lobbied to remove bowling alleys from the list of businesses subject to an expanded sales tax. Her son was part owner of a Portland bowling alley, but she insisted that had nothing to do with her position.

Also in 2009, Ken Fletcher, then a GOP state representative from Winslow, accepted a loan for a nonprofit group he headed from Preti-Flaherty, a law firm that regularly lobbied the committee on which he served. Move along, sheeple, nothing to see here.

In 2006, Tom Saviello of Wilton was an independent state representative and an employee of International Paper in Jay. Saviello, who’s now a GOP state senator, urged environmental regulators to revoke a violation notice against the mill, while also serving on the committee that oversaw those same regulators. No harm, said the ethics commission, no foul.

Actual legislative conflicts of interest are so rare they should be protected by the Endangered Species Act. Except there are people a lot less ethical than Ryan Tipping who plan to repeal that.

Feeling conflicted? Email aldiamon@herniahill.net.