Commentary

The cost of truth in Maine politics

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Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, is clearly among the straightest of all straight arrows in our state’s legislative quiver. She would not flinch from being the single vote for or against a bill in the whole House, regardless of political risk.

I’m categorically certain that her motives for sponsoring LD 850 had nothing to do with expediency. I’m equally certain that Rep. Lance Harvell’s lone Republican vote against her bill was principled rather than expedient. I can attest that he shares my respect for Representative Sirocki in full measure.

The legislation would prohibit lobbyists, state employees, executive branch officials or members of the public from purposely providing false testimony to a legislative committee or purposely omitting or concealing a material fact. It would allow any committee member to require an oath from anyone who shows up to testify. Violators would face penalties for a Class E crime. Violators under oath could be charged with a Class D crime. Lobbyists, if found in violation, could be suspended from lobbying for two years.

Sirocki wrote LD 850 in order to slow the flow of false testimony that distorts Maine’s legislative processes. [It] “would enforce the expectation” she says, “that information provided by all persons, including lobbyists, to the Maine legislature, in both written and oral testimony, be truthful by prohibiting the purposeful submission of inaccurate material facts or omission of important facts as part of their testimony.”

It chafes against my partisan parts to admit this, but the Democrats have a point when they object to the “purposeful” part. In the absence of email or documents, how would purpose be established unless committee members are authorized to interrogate witnesses? We’ve seen how this works in a lot of testimony before congressional committees. “I don’t recall,” is all you need to say in order to avoid awkward truth-telling. There’s no accepted way to establish whether a dodgy witness can’t remember, or merely remembered that their lawyer told them to say they do not remember.

I’m willing to assume that Sirocki has clear ideas about how to recognize accurate information. I’m even more willing to assume that I do. But there are a lot of people whose primary test of accuracy is “does it please me to believe this.” And they are not being at all insincere. Under LD 850, it’s their innocence that would make them guilty.

A few year ago I sat in a committee hearing where I heard Christopher “Kit” St. John, founder and former executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, declare in positive tones, with garnished with expansive gestures, that the “Laffer Curve” was totally discredited.

This curve is a simple graphic intended to demonstrate the plain fact that the optimum rate of taxation was not necessarily the maximum rate. That is, when you raise a tax rate beyond a certain point, your revenue must diminish. Deny this and you might as well wear a placard reading “moron.” If we assume that Kit is not one, we must also assume that he simply did not know what he was talking about. Yet, he could hardly have been more emphatic.

Representative Harvell’s primary (but not sole) reason for voting against his colleague’s bill is the certainty that it promptly becomes another partisan weapon for legislators to use against each other. They hit their opponents with a perjury charge, opponents hit back with a perjury charge. He’s too old a hand to imagine that Republicans have a monopoly of non-partisan virtue. As he sees it, Maine’s Ethics Commission is a frequent arena for partisan warfare more than an ethical delousing operation.

Having a wide and lively interest in history, Harvell was also thinking of the ancient Athenian ostracism law. Under this law, the Assembly of citizens had one meeting a year when a majority of the voters could condemn a man to ten years of exile. This involved no criminal charges. It was simply aimed at any public figure that was so successful, so effective, and so popular that he might be capable of seizing power and making himself a tyrant. No trial, just a vote.

As it turned out, Athenian politicians sprung so many ostracism ambushes on each other that no politician was safe. The only solution was a tacit truce to stop ostracizing each other. So it stopped.

Harvell assumed the political rivalry has retained certain qualities for over 2,500 years, and these qualities will not soon disappear. He’s convinced that, if enacted as a law, the bill would become another political weapon for the two parties to use against each other. The mendacity charges will produce few convictions, but that won’t matter. Politicians understand they don’t really need conviction. The point is to bedevil, weaken, and damage opponents.

About John Frary

Professor John Frary of Farmington, Maine is a former US Congress candidate and retired history professor, a Board Member of Maine Taxpayers United and publisher of www.fraryhomecompanion.com and can be reached at: jfrary8070@aol.com

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