The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan and independent organization that is applying for nonprofit status. It was founded in 2009 to provide in-depth reporting on Maine government and politics as a public service to its Maine media partners. Currently, its staff members donate their time. The center’s Web site is pinetreewatchdog.org. Naomi Schalit is a senior reporter at the center.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap’s job is to run elections, oversee the state archives, ensure compliance with corporate incorporation filings and administer the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

And Dunlap, who is paid $83,844 by Maine taxpayers to represent their interests, also represents the interests of one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the state: He serves on the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine board of directors and acts as a representative in state proceedings on behalf of SAM.

Dunlap has been most visible representing SAM on the “Keeping Maine’s Forests” committee that is crafting a plan for the future of Maine’s North Woods.

He has also represented SAM in Statehouse discussions about a controversy regarding logging in deer yards near Katahdin Lake. Those discussions included Republican Sen. David Trahan of Waldoboro and Democratic Rep. John Piotti of Unity.

And in the last few months, Dunlap has been SAM’s representative on a legislatively mandated panel to review state gun laws related to domestic violence, although he was unable to make the panel’s one meeting.

Dunlap said his work on behalf of SAM, when conducted during business hours, is done as a private citizen and is a reflection of his concern for the welfare of the state.

He said that he was asked by the SAM board to participate in the different state proceedings “because I work in the capitol, it’s easier sometimes to go to these things.”

But if Dunlap said he does the work for SAM as a private citizen, that’s not the way SAM Executive Director George Smith put it.

In his Feb. 9, 2010, Down East Magazine online column, Smith identified Dunlap by his official state title when he described Dunlap’s work on a committee chaired by Maine Forest Service Director Alec Giffen: “Steering Committee members come from state agencies, environmental and conservation groups, and landowners. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap represents the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine for which I work.”

In a Jan. 22, 2010, Down East column, Smith said that “Maine’s Secretary of State, Matt Dunlap,” joined him in the Statehouse meeting on the conservation problem.

Yet in a subsequent interview with the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, Smith said Dunlap wasn’t acting on SAM’s behalf while working as secretary of state. “I think he’s been very careful to separate himself with his secretary of state duties,” said Smith.

Confusing?

Dunlap said he plays many roles. “I have to wear a lot of different hats and change them a lot,” he said. “I don’t have a little card that I flip around that says ‘Open’ and ‘Closed.’”

In fact, he says, “I’m always on the job.”

There is no clear state law or rule that bars Dunlap from working on SAM’s behalf during office hours. The conflict of interest standards governing the executive branch, of which the secretary of state is a part, focus largely on financial conflicts.

And there’s no agency with direct authority to enforce those standards.

According to the state’s Ethics Commission, “Maine is one of 11 states which do not have an independent agency that regulates the professional ethics of the executive branch of government.”

If Dunlap were Massachusetts’ secretary of state, his work for a private interest group could have violated several provisions of that state’s strong conflict of interest laws, said David Giannotti, spokesman for that state’s ethics commission.

There, the ethics commission warns state workers: “You may not take any official action affecting your own financial interest, or the financial interest of a business partner, private employer, or any organization for which you serve as an officer, director or trustee; … if you serve on the Board of a nonprofit organization (that is substantially engaged in business activities), you may not take any official action which would impact that organization, or its competitors; … You may not represent anyone but your public employer in any matter in which your public employer has an interest. For instance, you may not contact other government agencies on behalf of a company, an association, a friend, or even a charitable organization.”

Maine’s secretary of state is a partisan position elected by the Legislature. Dunlap, a Democrat, was elected to a third two-year term in December 2008. He is president-elect of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine is a nonprofit group that is described on its Web site as “Maine’s largest sportsman’s organization with 14,000 members and a full-time headquarters and staff in Augusta. SAM’s staff works at the Legislature, state agencies, and other forums on critical issues. SAM was organized … to promote conservation of Maine’s wildlife resources and to be an advocate for hunters, anglers, trappers and gun owners throughout the state.”

Dunlap joined SAM’s board almost a year ago. Both Dunlap and his supporters say there’s no overlap between his duties as secretary of state and SAM’s objectives, and thus no potential for conflict.

“I haven’t had any complaints from the (Legislature’s) presiding officers or the governor or anybody,” George Smith said. “He can’t really do anything for us as secretary of state; I think it would be pretty transparent if he did.”

Dan Billings, an attorney who represents the Maine Republican Party (for which he successfully sued Dunlap last year over delays in certifying people’s veto petitions), said he didn’t believe there was a problem with Dunlap’s advocacy for SAM, because he said that SAM’s interests don’t intersect with Dunlap’s official duties.

But Billings said Dunlap’s advocacy could create an appearance of a conflict in the public’s eye.

“He shouldn’t be using his position as secretary of state to advance SAM’s interests or any other private group,” said Billings. “It’s not clear he’s doing it, but I’m not sure people are able to distinguish that he’s not acting as the secretary of state. When he speaks as a volunteer for SAM, people might be thinking he’s speaking as the secretary of state for Maine.”

Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., a nonpartisan group that documents connections between money and politics, said that’s a problem.

“People should not be wondering if their publicly elected officials are doing what is in the public’s best interest, the gun lobby’s best interest or landowners’ best interest,” Levinthal said. “Anytime a public official is conducting private business or conducting the business of a special interest that is lobbying the government for which he works, that’s a conflict of interest the size of Katahdin’s peak.”

There are areas in which Dunlap’s job and the interests of SAM could intersect. SAM lobbies the Legislature and it runs a political action committee — the SAM PAC.

The SAM Web site states that “SAM PAC participates in candidate and referenda elections, surveying, rating and endorsing candidates for the Legislature, governor, and Congress. The endorsement of SAM PAC is highly sought and very valuable in courting the sportsmen’s vote.”

If a SAM-endorsed candidate ends up in a disputed election, should the public doubt Dunlap’s ability to act fairly in overseeing a recount?

“I think it’s a fair question,” said Dunlap. “I’m not sure there’s ever a truly convincing answer. … I play this whole thing straight and I don’t play favorites. It’s a difficult question, because there’s no quantifiable evidence.”

Dunlap said he did not plan to participate in SAM’s candidate endorsement process. And in the end, Dunlap doesn’t think his work for SAM creates a problem: “I do not believe that it is bad for people to wonder if their public officials are acting in their best interests,” he said. “That’s called ‘accountability.’”

“Should I not do the things I think are valuable that make this state a better place?” he asked. “Then I’ve cashed in to my critics.”

Disclosure: Prior to joining the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting in March, Naomi Schalit worked for 2.5 months for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, where a staff member served on a legislatively mandated panel to review state gun laws. Schalit had no interactions with that panel. Schalit also did 19 hours of consulting work last year for the PAC run by Democratic Rep. John Piotti.