AUGUSTA — The executive director of the state ethics commission clarified his stance Friday on Rep. Ryan Tipping, saying the Orono Democrat likely violated the state’s ethics law when he failed to disclose in a timely fashion that he earned income from work he did on behalf of a political action committee in 2016.
Tipping, who is the House chairman of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee, has been criticized by Maine Republicans, including Gov. Paul LePage, for his work with the Stand Up for Students PAC. The group supported the passage of a citizen’s initiative that added a 3 percent income tax surcharge on Maine households earning more than $200,000 a year.
“After speaking to Rep. Tipping, the commission staff is viewing this preliminarily as a likely violation of the requirement for legislators to file a statement for the current calendar year if there is a substantial change in their employment,” Jonathan Wayne, the ethics commission’s executive director, wrote in an email to Maine media outlets Friday morning.
Wayne was criticized by Republicans on Thursday after he said that he did not believe the failure to report the income as required was a willful violation.
“We are discussing how to exercise our enforcement discretion in this matter, and it may be scheduled for a future meeting of the commission,” Wayne said in the email Friday. “We are also reviewing our advice to Legislators to better educate them that they need to file a statement for the current calendar year if their employment changes.”
Tipping has said the late disclosure of the income from the PAC was “unintentional” and he intended to work with the ethics commission to correct the oversight. Despite Wayne’s statement that a violation was likely, a spokeswoman for Tipping said Friday that the legislator’s position had not changed.
House Assistant Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, called for an investigation of Tipping’s involvement with the PAC on Thursday. Espling also has asked House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, to convene the House Ethics Committee. Gideon and the majority Democrats voted down an effort to convene the 10-person panel that Republicans sought in February.
Tipping had consulted with the ethics commission before he began working for the ballot campaign and was told that he could accept the work without violating conflict-of-interest laws.
Republicans also are challenging Tipping for accepting payment from the PAC while he was also accepting public finances as a Maine clean elections candidate. While the practice is not illegal, some lawmakers are questioning whether it is ethical given clean elections candidates’ vow to not take any outside money for their campaigns when they accept taxpayer funds under the law. But a review of Tipping’s campaign finance reports on file with ethics commission show he returned $5,380 to the clean elections fund in 2016. The reports show Tipping collected the required $5 donations from 100 people as the required seed money, but his campaign only spent $120. The seed donations and the rest of the public funding was returned to the clean elections fund, the campaign finance report shows.
Tipping was paid $9,000 by the PAC over a six-month period starting in May of 2016. Under the state’s ethics law, which was updated in 2012, lawmakers are required to file disclosures with the ethics commission when they are paid or earn any new income exceeding $2,000. The interim disclosures are in addition to required annual income disclosures by lawmakers. While some lawmakers have followed the $2,000 rule, including a state representative who updated his income disclosure form when his wife changed jobs, such interim reports are not common.
The form lawmakers complete for income disclosure includes clear instructions directing them to file updates based on the $2,000 threshold. Overall, the income disclosure reports provide only basic details about employment outside of the Legislature and do not require a disclosure of actual dollar amounts of income. The annual reports are due in February of each year and cover the preceding year’s income. Other top elected and appointed officials in state government, including the governor and his Cabinet members, also are required to file income disclosures each year.
Tipping revealed the income in his annual report filed in February, but did not submit the interim disclosures that were required when he passed the $2,000 threshold.
While LePage has called for Tipping to resign from the House, other Republicans are saying at a minimum Tipping should step down from his position as co-chairman of the Taxation Committee. The committee is considering how to implement the income tax surcharge, or whether to change the law passed by voters in November.
Also Thursday, House Republicans pointed to a section of the ethics law that states a “willing violation” of the disclosure rules requires a sitting lawmaker be “precluded” from voting on any matter before the Legislature.
Friday, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, again called on Gideon to convene the House Ethics Committee. Fredette, said the House ethics rules was a matter aside from the law in question with the ethics commission. Fredette voiced frustration over what he called “the stubborness of Democrats to really view this as a real issue.”
“People have legitimate and serious questions about this and to leave that out there erodes the public’s trust,” Fredette said. He added that “nobody is out to get Ryan Tipping,” and said he believes the committee, which is split equally between Republicans and Democrats, could reach a “fair and intelligent” conclusion that also would serve to provide “some future guidance” to legislators
Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:
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