The Ethics of Pollution

Maine needs better ethics enforcement - Bangor Daily News March 1, 2006 By Jon Lund and Clinton B. Townsend Sadly, it has become apparent that Maine needs a brand-new legislative ethics enforcement law. The need was amply demonstrated last week when the Maine Ethics Commission took up Rep. Tom Saviello's request for its opinion as to his conduct as a legislator. Saviello is employed by International Paper Co. as the environmental manager for IP's mill in Jay, which is a major contributor of pollution to the Androscoggin River. He also serves on the Legislature's Joint Standing Committee on Natural Resources. There, he passes on laws and regulations which govern IP's impact on the environment. The Androscoggin River has lagged far behind Maine's other major rivers in its water quality, despite the fact that its polluted condition was the driving force behind Sen. Edmund Muskie's push for enactment of the Clean Water Act more than 30 years ago. IP has vigorously opposed attempts to bring the water quality of the Androscoggin River into line with other major rivers such as the Kennebec and Penobscot. As IP's environmental manager, Saviello also deals directly with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in negotiating the terms of IP's water-quality discharge license, as well as when IP violates environmental laws, such as when it causes an oil spill or violates hazardous waste regulations. Saviello has come under fire from a number of environmental organizations, including the Androscoggin River Alliance, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Maine Rivers because of widespread perception that his dual role as environmental manager of IP's Jay mill and as a legislator who has a voice in establishing the rules under which IP operates has resulted in regulatory and legislative treatment of IP which is significantly less strict than the treatment of other major polluters. Saviello recently requested the Ethics Commission for an opinion on his activities. At a hearing on Feb. 23, the Ethics Commission went into executive session with Saviello and his lawyer. The concerned environmental organizations were excluded and left cooling their heels outside the closed-door session, which lasted for more than two hours. After the executive session, the Ethics Commission announced that Saviello had withdrawn the request for an opinion, and that it had no problem with him returning to the Natural Resources Committee. Further turning a deaf ear to public concerns, it stated it was tabling any consideration of ethics complaints against him. There is no provision in Maine law for a complaint by an ordinary citizen for an ethical violation by a legislator. However, the law does provide that the commission may proceed on its own motion to investigate such matters. The commission had available to it a voluminous portfolio of information compiled by the environmental groups setting forth the various activities by Saviello that led to their concerns. This material included a lengthy and fully documented formal complaint drafted by the Conservation Law Foundation addressing Saviello's use of his legislative position to affect numerous issues directly involving the IP mill in Jay, including oil spills, hazardous waste violations and degradation of water quality. The commission had been advised by the Attorney General's Office that it could use that material as the basis for its own investigation. Nevertheless, the commission stated that it "felt uncomfortable" doing so, and declined to act. End of case. But maybe not end of story? Maine is justly proud of its citizen legislature. People from all walks of life and of every political persuasion can and do make the effort to participate in representative government, often at significant personal and financial sacrifice. At the same time, it is important that the members of a citizen legislature be responsive to the legitimate concerns of the very citizenry which elected them. The law regarding legislative ethics is full of grand pronouncements that a legislator should avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the law is toothless when it comes to enforcement. In fact, the law as written, and as administered by the Ethics Commission, appears to be designed more to insulate the legislators from criticism than to enforce basic ethical behavior. Maine has a fine Legislature, full of honorable people. We can afford to do better when it comes to enforcement of legislative ethics. Maine needs a better enforcement process, and we need it now. Jon Lund is a former state legislator and former attorney general. He is chairman of the Maine Board of the Conservation Law Foundation. Clinton B. Townsend has served on many state boards and commissions. He also is president of Maine Rivers.