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Maine secretary of state walks thin line between public, private interests

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Maine secretary of state walks thin line between public, private interests

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap’s job is to run elections, oversee the state archives, ensure compliance with corporate incorporation filings and administer the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

But Dunlap, who is paid more than $83,800 by taxpayers to represent their interests, also represents the interests of one of the most powerful special interest groups in the state: He serves on the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine board of directors and acts as a representative in state proceedings on behalf of SAM.

Dunlap has been most visible representing SAM on the “Keeping Maine’s Forests” committee that is crafting a plan for the future of Maine’s North Woods. He has also represented SAM in Statehouse discussions about a controversy regarding logging in deer yards near Katahdin Lake. Those discussions included Republican Sen. David Trahan of Waldoboro and Democratic Rep. John Piotti of Unity. And in the last few months, Dunlap has been SAM’s representative on a legislatively mandated panel to review state gun laws related to domestic violence, although he was unable to make the panel’s one meeting.

Dunlap says his work on behalf of SAM, when conducted during business hours, is done as a private citizen and is a reflection of his concern for the welfare of the state. He says that he was asked by the SAM board to participate in the different state proceedings “because I work in the capitol, it’s easier sometimes to go to these things.”

But if Dunlap says he does the work for SAM as a private citizen, that’s not the way SAM Executive Director George Smith puts it.

In his Feb. 9 online column for Down East magazine, Smith identifies Dunlap by his official state title when he describes Dunlap’s work on a committee chaired by Maine Forest Service Director Alec Giffen: “Steering Committee members come from state agencies, environmental and conservation groups, and landowners. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap represents the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine for which I work.”

In a Jan. 22, Down East column, Smith also mentions that “Maine’s Secretary of State, Matt Dunlap,” joined him in the Statehouse meeting on the conservation problem.

Yet in a subsequent interview with the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, Smith said Dunlap isn’t acting on SAM’s behalf while working as secretary of state. “I think he’s been very careful to separate himself with his secretary of state duties,” Smith said.

Dunlap acknowledges that he plays many roles. “I have to wear a lot of different hats and change them a lot,” he says. “I don’t have a little card that I flip around that says ‘Open’ and ‘Closed.’”

In fact, he said, “I’m always on the job.”

There is no clear state law or rule that bars Dunlap from working on SAM’s behalf during office hours. The conflict of interest standards governing the executive branch, of which the secretary of state is a part, focus largely on financial conflicts.

And there’s no agency with direct authority to enforce those standards. According to the state’s Ethics Commission, “Maine is one of 11 states which do not have an independent agency that regulates the professional ethics of the executive branch of government.”

If Dunlap were Massachusetts secretary of state, his work for a private-interest group could have violated several provisions of that state’s strong conflict of interest laws, said David Giannotti, spokesman for the Massachusetts Ethics commission.

There, the commission warns state workers: “You may not take any official action affecting your own financial interest, or the financial interest of a business partner, private employer, or any organization for which you serve as an officer, director or trustee; ... if you serve on the Board of a non-profit organization (that is substantially engaged in business activities), you may not take any official action which would impact that organization, or its competitors; … You may not represent anyone but your public employer in any matter in which your public employer has an interest. For instance, you may not contact other government agencies on behalf of a company, an association, a friend, or even a charitable organization.”

Maine’s secretary of state is a partisan position elected by the Legislature. Dunlap, a Democrat, was elected to a third two-year term in December 2008. He is the president-elect of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine is a non-profit group that is described on its Web site as “Maine's largest sportsman's organization with 14,000 members and a full-time headquarters and staff in Augusta.  SAM's staff works at the legislature, state agencies, and other forums on critical issues.  SAM was organized … to promote conservation of Maine's wildlife resources and to be an advocate for hunters, anglers, trappers and gun owners throughout the state.”

Dunlap joined SAM’s board almost a year ago. Both Dunlap and his supporters say that there’s no overlap between his duties as secretary of state and SAM’s objectives, and thus no potential for conflict.

“I haven’t had any complaints from the (Legislature’s) presiding officers or the governor or anybody,” Smith said. “He can’t really do anything for us as secretary of state. I think it would be pretty transparent if he did.”

Dan Billings, an attorney who represents the Maine Republican Party (for whom he successfully sued Dunlap last year over delays in certifying people’s veto petitions), said he doesn’t believe there’s a problem with Dunlap’s advocacy for SAM, because he says that SAM’s interests don’t intersect with Dunlap’s official duties.

But Billings said that Dunlap’s advocacy could create an appearance of a conflict in the public’s eye.

“He shouldn’t be using his position as secretary of state to advance SAM’s interests or any other private group,” Billings said. “It’s not clear he’s doing it, but I’m not sure people are able to distinguish that he’s not acting as the secretary of state. When he speaks as a volunteer for SAM, people might be thinking he’s speaking as the secretary of state for Maine.”

Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., a nonpartisan group that documents connections between money and politics, said that’s a problem.

“People should not be wondering if their publicly elected officials are doing what is in the public’s best interest, the gun lobby’s best interest or land owners’ best interest,” Levinthal said. “Any time a public official is conducting private business or conducting the business of a special interest that is lobbying the government for which he works, that’s a conflict of interest the size of Katahdin’s peak.”

There are areas in which Dunlap’s job and the interests of SAM could intersect. SAM not only lobbies the Legislature, it also runs a political action committee, the SAM PAC. The SAM Web site states that the “SAM PAC participates in candidate and referenda elections, surveying, rating, and endorsing candidates for the legislature, Governor, and Congress. The endorsement of SAM PAC is highly sought and very valuable in courting the sportsmen’s vote.”

If a SAM-endorsed candidate ends up in a disputed election, should the public doubt Dunlap’s ability to act fairly in overseeing a recount?

“I think it’s a fair question,” Dunlap said. “I’m not sure there’s ever a truly convincing answer. … I play this whole thing straight and I don’t play favorites. It’s a difficult question because there’s no quantifiable evidence.”

Dunlap said he does not plan to participate in SAM’s candidate endorsement process. And in the end, Dunlap doesn’t think his work for SAM creates a problem.

“I do not believe that it is bad for people to wonder if their public officials are acting in their best interests,” he said. “That’s called accountability.

“Should I not do the things I think are valuable that make this state a better place? Then I’ve cashed in to my critics.”

Naomi Shalit is a senior reporter at the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting in Hallowell. Prior to joining the center in March, she worked for 2 1/2 months for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, where a staff member served on a legislatively mandated panel to review state gun laws. Schalit had no interactions with that panel. Schalit also did 19 hours of consulting work last year for the political action committee run by Democratic Rep. John Piotti.