If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.
Someone should relay this message to Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, who is up to his ears in a mess he alone created.
For the last several weeks, the Maine GOP has been shouting from the rooftops in Augusta that Tipping is entangled in a potential conflict of interest regarding campaign work he engaged in last November and his current post as House Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Taxation.
During the last election cycle, as a member of the Education Committee, Tipping accepted $9,000 in payment from a PAC called Citizens Who Support Maine Public Schools for his consultant work advancing their initiative. The PAC was a major proponent of Question 2, which passed on Nov. 8, imposing a three percent surtax on incomes earned over $200,000 to fund k-12 public education in Maine.
Additionally, Tipping is a Clean Elections candidate.
Instead of listening to their colleagues’ concerns, Democrats defended Tipping’s glaring conflict of interest, striking down a House Order last Thursday to investigate the matter.
But before the order was even considered on the House floor, Maine’s far left (including the media) rushed to Tipping’s side. According to Tipping and other Maine Democrats, he had taken the necessary precautionary step in receiving confirmation from Jonathan Wayne, Executive Director of the Maine Ethics Commission, that he was not in violation of Maine ethics laws and could continue serving as committee chair.
Except that these early reports were only half-truths.
“Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the commission, confirmed that Tipping reached out to his agency in May 2016, saying it advised that Tipping could accept the work under the Legislature’s conflict of interest standards as long as the committee didn’t offer it to him to influence his legislative duties,” Michael Shepherd of the Bangor Daily News reported on Feb. 14.
Not only did Wayne never give direct confirmation that Tipping was cleared of ethics concerns, Tipping omitted the full scope of his involvement with the PAC and Maine Legislature to the commission during his original inquiry.
In a letter sent to Tipping just days ago on March 5, Wayne outlined the reality of the situation.
“At the time I sent you an email on January 27, 2017, I was absent from the Commission office for family health reasons and had only a few minutes to offer a brief reply. At that time, you did not mention, and it had not come to my attention, that you were the House Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Taxation,” Wayne wrote.
“I presumed that you were asking the question as a regular member of the Maine House of Representatives who might be called upon to vote on taxation issues on the floor of the chamber,” the letter continued.
Additionally, it is not the job of the ethics commission to interpret the law or grant permission for legislators to engage in this type of conduct. The ethics commission merely educates legislators on ethics laws and offers them guidance, according to Wayne’s letter.
Therefore, such talks occurring between a legislator and the ethics commission cannot be accepted as adequate fortification against claims of conflict of interest. The only way to dispel this notion is through investigation.
This doesn’t make Shepherd’s initial reporting false, but rather a woeful misrepresentation of the full truth. Don’t fret though – the full truth concerning Tipping’s original correspondence with Wayne magically came across Shepherd’s desk on the same day the Maine GOP was teasing its release, three weeks after his original reporting.
What a coincidence.
As the House Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Taxation, Tipping and his legislative colleagues will consider L.D. 339 and L.D. 829, bills put in this session to modify the effects Question 2 would have on roughly 11,450 businesses and family farms that file taxes as pass-through entities, meaning business profits are passed on to business owners as individual income. Due to Question 2’s passage, these earners will now pay a higher tax rate in Maine than corporations.
After reviewing existing statutes and various interpretations made by previous Maine attorneys general, Wayne concluded that there doesn’t appear to be a conflict of interest in Tipping’s case on paper due to the absence of tangible benefits he would receive based on passage of either bill. However, Wayne noted the public ramifications of such conduct as a sitting legislator.
“Although it may occur rarely, when a member of the Legislature accepts an offer of employment from an advocacy organization (or an affiliated PAC) that is a perennial participant in the legislative process, the Legislator should be aware that some members of the public will view the employment as a potential conflict of interest. While the Legislator may be certain that he or she was not hired to promote that organization’s views in the Legislature, members of the public will not necessarily share that confidence.
The situation may lead some members of the public to wonder if the Legislator is serving his or her constituents only or is influenced by the employer. If Legislators wish to avoid this second-guessing by the public, they should decline to accept jobs from employers who are active in influencing legislation,” Wayne wrote.
Ultimately, it is up to individual legislators whether to recuse themselves from influencing legislation related to policies they were paid to promote in the public realm.
Still, it remains unclear how Tipping could remain impartial to any legislation seeking to modify Question 2, while serving as chair of the taxation committee, after accepting $9,000 in payment from the initiative’s supporting cast.
What’s more uncertain is how Tipping intends to emerge unscathed from his personal cavity in Earth’s crust.
Perhaps we give the man a shovel.