Free meals and rooms to lawmakers not always disclosed under ethics laws
AUGUSTA — The recent two-day conference that corporate giant Time Warner put on for Maine legislators has revealed loopholes in the state’s ethics laws that make it difficult for voters to know if their elected representatives took part.
On Jan. 22-23, Time Warner, the leading cable provider in the state, invited a select group of Maine House and Senate members to a “Winter Policy Conference” at a luxury Cape Elizabeth resort that included meals and rooms. A major topic at the conference was the growing movement by communities to build high-speed broadband networks themselves, bypassing the service offered by companies like Time Warner.
Legislative officials would not release more than a handful of the names of those who were wined and dined at the Inn By The Sea, and until they were legally required to disclose those names late yesterday in a state Ethics Commission filing, Time Warner refused to do so either. And there are few, if any, legal disclosure requirements for individual legislators to do so.
- The event included meals, such as a steak dinner, but these kinds of free meals don’t need to be disclosed because they are not considered gifts. “The legislature has decided that meals as part of an informational presentation are not a gift,” said Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission.
- If a legislator was put up for the night by Time Warner in one of the rooms at the Inn, which cost from $197 to $553, state law says the lodging wouldn’t need to be disclosed, either, unless it was worth more than $300.
“If the value is less than $300, it’s not a gift,” said Wayne. Under the state’s definition, the legislators who got more expensive rooms did get a gift, so they will have to disclose it.
- But a voter won’t be able to find out anytime soon which legislators, if any, got the $300-plus rooms. That’s because lawmakers aren’t required to disclose those gifts in their annual income statements until February, 2016, more than a year after the event.
- There’s one more way a voter could find out who attended the event. Lobbyists, like the organizer of the Time Warner event, Melinda Poore, are required to disclose in their monthly report a “list of events and attendees if $250 or more was spent on officials.” So when Time Warner gave a similar event for legislators in 2013, Poore reported it in her January 2013 lobbyist disclosure. That disclosure did not specify how much was spent on each legislator.
The January, 2015 registration for Time Warner lobbyist Poore appeared on the state Ethics Commission’s website on Feb. 17. She was also required to file a report about her January lobbying activities, including the Cape Elizabeth event, by midnight, Feb. 17. That report declared that $8,257 was spent on the event and listed the names of lawmakers who received meals or lodging. That report is available at the Commission’s website.
But a voter could only find out that their legislator attended an event such as Time Warner’s if they suspected or knew an event had taken place and looked for the lobbying disclosure form that reported it.
Slow internet speeds
Time Warner has interests at stake before the legislature this session, including one that could cost the company part of its market. Frustrated with slow internet speeds provided by companies like Time Warner, a growing number of cities in the state, like communities across the U.S., are choosing to build high-speed internet connections for local residents and businesses. In many of those cases, the communities plan to partner with smaller, Maine internet companies to operate the high speed service.
The frustration with the state’s slow internet speeds has surfaced at the legislature, where dozens of broadband bills have been submitted. At the Time Warner event, legislators were given two sessions where presenters told them that community-sponsored high-speed broadband was a bad idea or one that would be unpopular with the public.
State Sen. Kim Rosen, R-Bucksport, through a spokeswoman, said she attended “because broadband is an important issue to her constituents, and her constituents would benefit from her having as much information as possible on the topic.” The spokeswoman, Jamie Carter, also said Rosen’s husband, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services Richard Rosen, attended with her.
Carter did not respond to whether Sen. Rosen or her husband accepted meals or a room from Time Warner.
Some legislators say that they didn’t go because they thought it wouldn’t look ethical to their constituents.
“This just adds to the cynical attitude when legislators are going to one of the most expensive hotels in Maine for an all-expenses-paid junket, and we’re supposed to believe that Time Warner isn’t going to be looking for something in return,” said Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, an independent legislator from Friendship. Evangelos did not attend the event.
Many interest groups hold breakfasts, meet-and-greet events or even dinners for legislators at which a program is presented. Democratic House member Mark Dion said it was “how Augusta functions on some level.”
State Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, said “I don’t know why you’re making such a big thing of this, legislators go to informational events all the time.” Sanderson did not go to the Time Warner event.
State Rep. Erik Jorgensen, D-Portland, who also did not attend the event, said, “You have to look at these things very carefully. It just seemed a little over the top. My sense is that like everywhere else, 90 percent of ethics is about perception, there’s a certain amount of ethical behavior that’s completely black and white; the rest is shades of gray.”
Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said an overnight event like the one his organization sponsors every year for about two dozen legislators at Sunday River is in the public interest because it opens lines of communication between the state’s business leaders and lawmakers.
“All these issues the legislature deals with, very few are simple, unless you want to name a bird or dog,” said Connors. “Most of those issues really benefit from having as much involvement and discussion as possible and the opportunity doesn’t really exist” at the statehouse.
There are “no conditions, no expectations as to you’re expected to do something,” said Connors, only that the participants “leave there having had a healthy discussion.”
The Chamber’s lobbyist discloses the cost of the event and the legislators taking part in it every year.
Nevertheless, events such as the one hosted by Time Warner can undermine the public’s faith in those legislators, said attorney Dan Boxer, who teaches ethics at the University of Maine School of Law.
“It’s legal but it’s clear that those who went and defended it probably didn’t go through the analysis of identifying whether there are ethical, integrity, confidence issues” raised by going, said Boxer. “Would a reasonable person question whether this is something they’d expect their legislator to do. I’m guessing they listened to their inner yes man, that ‘It’s all okay, you’re too good to be bribed.’
“Where the Maine legislature continually falls down is they don’t really have the discussion about how it looks,” continued Boxer. “It would just be great if they understood that there’s an integrity and a culture thing here which has nothing to do with a law or rule or regulation.”
The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, non-profit news service based in Augusta. Email: email@example.com. Web: www.pinetreewatchdog.org. Blake Davis contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Fletcher Kittredge, head of internet company G.W.I., which has partnered with Maine towns to extend high-speed broadband, is a member of the Center’s board of directors. Daniel Boxer is a donor to the Center. Center bylaws prohibit board members and donors from any involvement in story selection, writing or editing.