Maine House Republicans amped up their charges Thursday against the Democratic co-chairman of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee, saying he violated ethics laws by missing deadlines to report income from a controversial political consulting job.
Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, was “in clear violation of Maine ethics laws” because he delayed disclosure of $9,000 in income he received from a political action committee behind the successful 2016 Maine referendum to impose an income tax surcharge on high earners.
Although Tipping disclosed the payments in his income disclosure form filed in February, Republicans said the disclosure should have been made months ago and before House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, appointed Tipping to his chairman’s seat.
In a prepared statement, Tipping said he has been “open and transparent” about his employment. “If I made an unintentional reporting error I am happy to work with the ethics commission to swiftly resolve it,” Tipping said.
The executive director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which enforces the state’s ethics laws, said Tipping was not in violation because it does not appear the error was willful.
The charge is the latest in a series against Tipping by Republicans who say he has a conflict of interest in his role as chairman because he took payment from the Stand Up for Students PAC in 2016. The organization worked to pass a citizens initiative that tacked a 3 percent surcharge on the state’s income tax for households earning more than $200,000. The revenue from the tax hike, estimated at about $190 million, is meant to help the state fund public education.
According to law, a payment or new income earned by a legislator that exceeds $2,000 must be disclosed within 30 days. Tipping was paid $1,500 a month by the PAC for six months starting in May 2016 to do outreach work with local municipal officials in an effort to gain their support for the ballot question, which passed by a narrow margin. But Tipping did not disclose his payments from the PAC until February. Republicans said he should have done so in August of 2016.
Republicans say Tipping should not be allowed to be a leader of the very committee that will be responsible for putting the new law into effect, or possibly changing it. Maine Republican Party Chairman Demi Kouzounas called Thursday for Tipping to step aside as Taxation Committee chairman.
During an interview Thursday on WGAN radio, Gov. Paul LePage again called for Tipping to resign from the Legislature entirely, saying, “His vote is for sale.”
Tipping and Democrats have denied having any conflict of interest, saying he took a job in between legislative sessions and has long advocated for a more progressive income tax code in Maine and for more money for public education.
Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, renewed her request Thursday that House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, convene the House Ethics Committee to review Tipping’s action. Last week in a party-line vote, Democrats defeated a House order brought by Espling to convene the committee.
“We question the conflict of interest, and this failure to disclose just adds to it,” Espling said. “No matter which way you look at it, it’s a situation that deems looking into and no one is willing to do that.”
Mary-Erin Casale, a spokeswoman for Gideon, said Gideon is not going to convene the House Ethics Committee, and that the question over Tipping’s income disclosure form was one for the independent state ethics commission, which oversees election laws and financial disclosures.
When asked if House Republicans or anybody else had filed a formal complaint about Tipping with the ethics commission, which is independent of the Legislature, Espling said they had not.
Meanwhile, the Maine Republican Party has filed a legal request under the state’s Freedom of Access Act for communications between Gideon and Tipping regarding his appointment to chair the committee. It’s unclear if Tipping requested an appointment as Taxation Committee chairman or if Gideon simply appointed him. When asked Thursday, Casale said she was uncertain but would try to find out.
Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the ethics commission, confirmed that no formal complaint about Tipping had been filed with his office and said he did not believe that Tipping’s failure to disclose his new income in 2016 within 30 days was willful.
Wayne said a 2012 law change required more timely updating of income disclosure forms, and it was likely other lawmakers also had changes that were not updated within the 30-day requirement. The disclosures are required to be filed each February, unless there is new income of $2,000 or more.
“Our forms do describe that requirement to legislators, but I suspect that some of them are unaware of the responsibility to file an updated statement for the current year if their employment changes,” Wayne wrote.
Wayne said Tipping’s disclosure form, filed Feb. 2 of this year, did include the PAC payments from 2016. “So, my opinion is that, at this point, Rep. Tipping does not need to file any other statement relating to 2016 to make a correction,” Wayne wrote.
Rob Poindexter, the spokesman for House Republicans, said Wayne could not determine whether the violation was willful without an investigation.
“(Wayne) admits that Tipping broke the law,” Poindexter wrote in an email message to the Portland Press Herald. “The statute says, ‘A legislator shall file an updated statement concerning the current calendar year if the income …’ which (Tipping) did not do.”
Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at: