The Portland Press Herald
We still don't know how much taxpayer money Gov. Paul LePage spent at the Trump International Hotel during his frequent trips to the nation's capital, but we have learned something that could be much more important.
By now we should know that Maine's Freedom of Access Act is not strong enough in its current form to adequately protect the public's right to know what its government is doing. If the law is not soon buttressed with the addition of meaningful consequences for officials who willfully violate it, the law will quickly become irrelevant.
That's not an outcome anyone interested in good government should accept.
Ignoring public records requests became the norm during the LePage administration, as deadlines were allowed to expire and months turned into years without producing any documents or satisfactory explanations. Now that LePage is no longer in office, his successor's staff is struggling to fill leftover requests, but the fact that LePage was able to get away with it sends a powerful message throughout government at all levels: Compliance with this law is optional.
The Trump hotel bills are a classic example. LePage made a number of trips to Washington in the early months of the Trump administration. We know that the governor's security detail stayed at the hotel, which is owned by the president's family. When LePage was asked how much he spent during those visits, he grew uncharacteristically quiet.
The government is supposed to respond to requests for records within five days, either by turning over the documents or explaining why it's taking longer. The hotel bill request languished for hundreds of days, even though complying with the law would have been no more difficult than producing a few receipts - just like every business traveler does every month of the year.
Previous administrations have complied with the Freedom of Access Act, and so have school boards, town councils, task forces, blue ribbon commissions and other government bodies. They did it because they understood that it was their obligation because the public has a right to know what the government is doing. In some cases, officials probably complied with the law even if they found the request to be annoying, because violating it would make them look as if they had something to hide.
But the LePage record with Freedom of Access requests shows that if an official does not respect the public's rights and has no shame about appearing corrupt, there's not much more the law can do.
A task force of legal experts assembled by the Brennan Center for Justice recently issued a report calling for reforms to protect the rule of law and democracy on the federal level. Its authors identified the kind of problem that has been exposed by the failure to comply with public records laws in Maine.
"Our republic has long relied not just on formal laws and the Constitution, but also on unwritten rules and norms that constrain the behavior of public officials," they wrote. "Without them, government becomes a chaotic grab for power and self-interest."
Once the unwritten rules are violated, the country has to decide whether we can live without them or if they should be spelled out in statute.
As an example, they cite presidential term limits passed after Franklin D. Roosevelt broke the unwritten two-term tradition that had been established by George Washington.
Paul LePage is not in power anymore, but he has left a mess behind that goes beyond finding out how much he spent at the hotel.
If we still believe that government functions best in the sunshine, we need to give the Freedom of Access Act some teeth.