Pine Tree Watch releases second edition of online tool to research potential conflicts of interest

Posted:  Tuesday, November 7, 2017 - 12:30pm
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AUGUSTA — They are bus drivers, fishermen, lawyers and cooks. The members of the 128th Maine Legislature — a “citizen legislature” in the truest definition of the term — come from backgrounds as varied and interesting as the state itself. 

To help Maine citizens research the private financial interests and identify potential conflicts of interest of their elected lawmakers, Pine Tree Watch, a nonprofit news service focused on state government, has released the second edition of its popular interactive online tool. First launched in early 2016, “Making Connections: A guide to Maine legislators’ private and public interests – 128th Legislature edition” has since been updated to reflect the 187 lawmakers who comprise the 128th Maine Legislature.

The tool is now available directly at http://apps.pinetreewatch.org/maine-legislature. It can also be accessed through Pine Tree Watch’s Web site, pinetreewatch.org.

Users can search through the database to view the sources of income for each senator or representative. They will also find income sources for each lawmaker’s family members, what businesses the legislator owns, as well as what committees he or she sits on and the pieces of legislation sponsored in the first legislative session. Clicking on the title of a sponsored bill or amendment will take users to a description and summary of the piece of legislation on the Maine Legislature’s Web site.

All of the information presented through the tool comes from publicly available, usually hand-written, documents that include the 2016 lawmaker income disclosure forms filed with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices and the bill tracking and text search function on the Maine Legislature’s website.

“Lawmakers lose their anonymity when they become representatives of the people, so while some may argue this release of information violates their privacy we think the greater good is fulfilled,” said an editorial in the American Journal newspaper when the 2016 edition of the tool was released. “Your effort is definitely in the spirit of reporting the public interest.”

Pine Tree Watch does not draw any definitive conclusions about the possible convergence of private and public interests, but rather lets users research for themselves potential conflicts of interest. Meg Robbins, the journalist who updated the online tool by spending many hours poring over the disclosure forms and legislative record for each lawmaker, noted several interesting facts about the 128th Legislature: 

  • For the 2016 calendar year, education was the leading field that employed legislators, with 19 senators and representatives working as professors, teachers, coaches and even a chef and two bus drivers.
  • Consulting served as the second-most-common source of legislator income, with 16 legislators reporting owning or working for a consulting company.
  • Twelve legislators hold a paid position in town government, making local government the third-highest employer of state legislators in Maine.
  • Other top sources of income for legislators in 2016 included law, health care, real estate, retail, construction, agriculture, restaurants and fishing.
  • The 128th Legislature includes both young and old: 22 legislators receive Social Security pensions, 18 receive Maine Public Employees Retirement System pensions and 10 receive both kinds of pensions.
  • The Maine Legislature was the main source of income for about a third of the lawmakers in 2016. Fifty-seven legislators reported the Maine Legislature as their primary source of household income, while 10 more reported it as their main source of personal income.  

The database also yields some surprising facts that reach beyond Maine’s borders. Who knew, for instance, that Senator Catherine E. Breen, D-Falmouth, earns income from a car wash in Louisville, Kentucky? Or that the wife of Representative Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, owns over 5 percent of a banana farming company in Colombia? 

More importantly, a search of the database allows users to consider for themselves whether individual legislators have sponsored bills that may directly benefit an industry he or she profits from. We encourage every Maine citizen to make use of this innovative tool to help them become more-informed participants in our democracy.

Pine Tree Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting that holds Maine state government and institutions accountable. Our team of investigative journalists use data- and document-based reporting to produce stories that have an impact. Email: info@pinetreewatch.org. Web: www.pinetreewatch.org.