Ahh, August. Time to let sleeping dogs lie. Maine is far from the madness that has descended upon our nation’s capitol, though an occasional cloud mars the perfection of a summer day.
Gov. Paul LePage, who announced in May that he would not run for the U.S. Senate, suggested in July that he might. He continues to dip his lame duck toes into the D.C. swamp, traveling to Washington several times in the spring.
As reported by the Portland Press Herald, the nature of these visits is unclear, since many appear only as “private appointments” on his calendar. What is clear, thanks to the PPH, is that when the governor travels, he goes in style, paying from $300 to $750 per night for rooms for himself and his security detail, including four nights at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
This gives us an up-close and personal look at the questions that arise when people with political agendas, our governor included, visit D.C. and contribute to the Trump family’s personal bottom line at the same time they are seeking support, favors or jobs from the administration.
The Press Herald article also demonstrates the difficulty in obtaining state records through the Freedom of Access Act. On a number of occasions, the administration’s staff has refused to comply, or furnished only a partial response.
LePage was one of five gubernatorial candidates in the 2010 election to sign the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition pledge “to support open government and public access to government records.” That was then.
It is important to note that there is a distinction between “freedom of access” and “freedom of information.” The Freedom of Access Act is a state law and applies only to state or local government in Maine. The Freedom of Information Act is a federal law regulating pursuit of information at the federal level.
Maine has had a public access ombudsman since 2007 (currently Brenda Kielty) within the office of the attorney general, whose job it is to “review complaints about compliance with the Freedom of Access Act,” to mediate resolution of those complaints and to respond to queries about the requirements of the law.
Attorney General Janet Mills, in the ombudsman’s annual report for 2015, did not mince words about the ombudsman’s responsibilities. She quoted President Woodrow Wilson as saying, “… we believe it a fair presumption that secrecy means impropriety.”
Mills acknowledged the challenges of “balancing public access with legitimate privacy interests,” but when it comes to access to information defined as public, she stated: “We resent stalling. We expect full access.”
A description of the program on maine.gov states that the ombudsman is neither “an advocate for the complainant or a defender of the government,” but rather an “impartial intermediary who provides information, who informally resolves disputes and encourages full compliance with the spirit and letter of the law.”
The ombudsman anticipates that contacts to the office could double from 303 in 2013 to an anticipated 600 contacts in 2019. Contacts to the office in 2015 totaled 416, including 358 inquiries, 56 complaints and two suggestions.
Over half the requests came from private citizens or state agencies, the rest from municipalities, the press, law enforcement, schools or the executive branch. About half the requests focused on municipal government and about a quarter on state government, with smaller numbers inquiring about the legislature, schools, law enforcement, and county or regional government.
Penalties for failure to comply with Maine’s FOAA may not exceed $500 for a “willful violation” of the act. These are civil violations; there are no criminal penalties, though it is a Class D crime to “intentionally remove, alter, or destroy documents belonging to a state office.”
In addition to its other duties, the ombudsman’s office is charged with offering recommendations to improve public access. The 2015 report recommends changes to record management and retention, and considers public access questions surrounding remote participation in meetings by members of a public body. The website: “Your Right to Know: Maine’s Freedom of Access Act” has further information.
So now we are back to LePage’s trips to Washington and the information revealed (or not) in documents requested by Press Herald reporters. His office “refused to provide more details” about “private appointments.” Four months after their original request, the governor’s office “has yet to fully comply … .”
So who cares? Well, we should. The amount of money may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, except that the expenditures were made by a governor constantly calling out waste, fraud and abuse in government spending, even where none exists. One does not expect the governor to stay at the Y when he travels, but there are plenty of suitable accommodations for much less money in D.C.
Because he refuses to reveal the purpose of many of his meetings, how do we know whether these trips, funded largely by taxpayers, were for public or personal purposes? The governor works for us. Don’t we have the right to know what he is undertaking on our behalf?