Is it or isn't it a conflict of interest?

Is it or isn't it a conflict of interest?

By Wilson P. Dizard III

GCN Staff

A Maine lawmaker's role as head of a data processing company that holds about $10 million in contracts with the state has prompted a public controversy about legislative conflict of interest that has broken into newsprint and likely will embroil the state's ethics commission.

Pharmacist and businessman Joseph Bruno is a three-term member of the Maine House of Representatives representing the town of Raymond and a member of the Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs. The panel oversees the state's biennial budget, which amounted to $4 billion in 1998 and 1999.

He is also president and chief executive officer of Goold Health Systems Inc. of Augusta, Maine, a privately held company that has data processing contracts with the state Medical Services Bureau for processing prescription drug claims, entering data for Medicaid claims and operating a point-of-sale pharmacy benefit.

The Washington watchdog group Center for Public Integrity charged that Bruno 'has used his political power in the Pine Tree State to benefit himself' and his company. 'I think it might constitute the appearance of a conflict of interest when the head of a company that does millions of dollars of business with the state sits on an appropriation committee that funds the state agency with which his company has contracts,' said Diane Renzulli, director of state projects for CPI.

Bruno rejected the charge, stating in a letter to the editor of the Portland Press Herald that 'I have never used my position as a member of the House of Representatives for any personal or business gain.'

The Press Herald had printed an article about CPI's allegations and followed up with another story on legislative conflicts of interest and an editorial calling for stronger disclosure laws. The Bangor Daily News ran a story and an editorial on the issue, and the Associated Press State & Local Wire for Maine also covered it.

Bruno said CPI's statements about him are 'fraught with errors and unfair innuendo about the Maine Legislature and myself.' Goold has held contracts with Maine agencies since 1974, he wrote, long before he joined the company in October 1995.

'In fact, I was not employed by Goold [nor was I] a member of the Legislature when the point-of-sale contract was awarded to Goold in 1995 through competitive bidding,' Bruno wrote.

Bruno said he recused himself from votes on legislation that would affect his business and disclosed all the sources of his income to the ethics commission. Under Maine's legislative disclosure law, Bruno was not required to reveal his executive position with or ownership interest in Goold or the fact that the company holds state contracts.

He added in his letter to the newspaper that CPI's 'innuendo does a disservice to the state employees who prepare requests for proposals and who review the applications [for contracts]. The process is fair, honest and balanced. In fact, my company does not win all contracts it proposes.'

Follow the rules

Bruno was not available for an interview. But Deborah Whitworth, Goold's vice president for marketing and public relations, issued a written statement emphasizing that the company follows all state procurement rules.

'We have been in business over 26 years and have a solid reputation with both the private and public sectors,' the statement said. 'As to the legislative issues, Joe's voting record will show he abstains from voting on issues where there would be a conflict of interest.'

CPI noted that Goold's contracts with the state have increased in number and amount each year Bruno has been in office. It also stated that Bruno has participated in Appropriations Committee budget meetings to review state health computing contracts in which votes were not recorded and minutes not taken. Bruno and Whitworth were not available for comment about those meetings or about the type of computer technology Goold uses.

Jim Lewis, assistant director of the Medical Services Bureau of Maine's Human Services Department said the data processing contracts had been awarded after his office issued RFPs and evaluated the responses.

Lewis said he had 'never seen any sign' that Bruno had attempted to use his position as a state legislator to influence contract matters.

'They've been a good contractor and the relationship between the state and the vendor has been good,' Lewis said of Goold. He declined to comment on whether Bruno's dual role as legislator and contractor constituted a conflict of interest.

Lewis said the company's contract for low-cost prescription drug claim processing amounted to about $7.5 million, the data entry contract was for $1 million and the point-of-sale system contract was for $1.5 million.

Maine's Governmental Ethics and Electoral Practices Commission hasn't yet received an official complaint about Bruno's conduct, executive director Bill Hain said.

But commission member Michael Carpenter, principal of Carpenter's Law Office in Houlton, Maine, said he was aware of the conflict-of-interest controversy and that he will bring it up at the commission's next meeting. The commission can act on its own accord, as well as in response to official complaints.

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