Sleaze is not quite the right word for this subject. But in another of the unquestioned practices of government, isn't it sinister or at least creepy in a democracy for citizens to foot the bill for politicians and high officials to propagandize them? This is accomplished using state "communications," "public information," or "public relations" personnel.
Governor Baldacci's press office has two full-time staffers, plus former communications director David Farmer, a one-time Lewiston Sun Journal State House reporter who is now deputy chief of staff but continues to oversee press operations. Farmer earns $90,000 a year. The three of them together earn $185,000. There are fringe benefits and office expenses; a good guess would be the office and its employees consume $500,000. (Farmer says no numbers have been broken out for its operations.)
What do we get for this expenditure? The Baldacci communications office issues a constant stream of emailed "news" releases with such arresting information as "Governor Baldacci Proclaims Restaurant Week in Maine" and "Governor Announces Weatherization Courses Now Offered Statewide Through Interactive Television" by the University of Maine. To cite just one more example of a press office and its product, the Senate Democratic majority produces similar earth-shaking announcements such as "Transportation Committee Unanimously Approves Animal Welfare Plate."
These statements seem harmless enough, but since most are ignored by the press, they could be called a waste of the public's money. And shouldn't the restaurant lobby and the University of Maine get out their own promotional material?
Some of these news releases, though, are published by the lazier elements of the media. The PR office aim is to convince voters that the governor — or legislative leader, or department head — is doing wonderful things. State PR officials work to present their boss in the best possible light. By definition this means distortion, and we're paying for it.
State PR offices also produce declarations that deliver political views. In February the governor's office issued this statement: "Governor Baldacci, Maine Chamber of Commerce Support Work by Maine Senators to Support Economic Stimulus." Is it appropriate for the governor to issue a joint statement with the head of the state's chief corporate lobby? Well, maybe; he's got a right to express himself politically. But should state employees be employed in this activity?
In perhaps the most important role of the PR personnel, officials use them to cover up their activities by refusing to answer direct questions from reporters or other members of the public. "I'm not supposed to speak to the press. You have to go though our public-information office" are scripted lines reporters frequently hear from lower-level officials. But often the governor or department head is not made available to answer questions. The reporter has to be content with a prepared "statement," if that. PR officials can be very helpful when a reporter wants noncontroversial information, but it's a different story when the questions get tough.
Under covers, democracy gets screwed. Maine's Freedom of Access (freedom of information) laws are helpful. They require, generally speaking, open meetings and access to records. But state officials, perversely aided sometimes by the Attorney General's Office, often fight the release of information; PR officials are on the front line of this battle. For months I have asked for documents on cases in which the Department of Corrections has disciplined Maine State Prison guards. The department has stonewalled my request despite a state law specifically making this material public.
Any view the governor wishes to express he could do directly every day in a press conference. Department heads could make themselves similarly available. PR employees could be eliminated throughout state government. Since these state employees sometimes do informal legislative lobbying, which some lawmakers consider unseemly — the use of taxpayer money to lobby for more taxpayer money — another subtle corruption would be eliminated.
Replace the PR with an ombudsman
Here's an alternative use for the money spent on state officials' self-promoting PR operations.
It's a rule for any institution — or a rule of human nature — that when it's unsupervised, bad things happen to the human beings under its authority. I have developed the sad specialty of investigating state institutions — the Baxter School for the Deaf, the Pineland Center for developmentally disabled people, the Maine State's Prison's "Supermax" solitary-confinement unit — that have physically, mentally, or sexually abused their charges.
Many bad things are still going on at the prison, but almost no one in our ruling elite — governor, legislator, or judge — is interested. It's a willful ignorance. What's the political percentage in looking into the problems of nonvoting "losers" in the prisons, even if they're being tortured worse than at Guantánamo? There's much more to be gained by promoting the interests of the moneyed winners.
REMEDY Establish a highly independent (especially from the governor), publicly funded investigator, a wide-ranging state ombudsman, empowered at the least to issue independent reports on his or her probes of government abuse or wrongdoing.
Lance Tapley can be reached at email@example.com.