AUGUSTA, Maine — A group of Republican lawmakers is pressuring House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, to recuse himself and his staff from advocating for Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act because of Eves’ job with a mental health care provider that accepts Medicaid patients and holds Medicaid-funded contracts.

Eves said there is no conflict of interest, that he does not stand to personally benefit from Medicaid expansion and that he doesn’t intend to recuse himself.

A group of Republicans, led by Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst, said during a news conference Wednesday that Eves should recuse himself because of his affiliation with Sweetser. A letter to Eves signed by 26 House Republicans calls on him to “halt all activities promoting legislation to expand Medicaid enrollment in Maine.”

“We believe that your singular advocacy for Medicaid expansion in the first session of the 126th Legislature, while you simultaneously served as director of business development for a major Medicaid beneficiary, has created the appearance of a conflict of interest, if not an actual conflict of interest,” reads the letter. “You acknowledged the inherent conflict between your work and your legislative leadership role when you took a leave of absence from your employer. However, you were not on a leave of absence when you voted as a member of the Legislative Council to allow reconsideration of Medicaid expansion in the second session. We believe that action was contrary to the letter and spirit of Joint Legislative Rules that prohibit reconsideration of bills that were voted on in the first session.”

No members of Republican legislative leadership signed the letter.

Here’s what the Legislature’s Joint Rules say about conflicts of interest: “A member may not vote on any question in committee when that question immediately involves that member’s private right, as distinct from the public interest.”

Eves said Wednesday afternoon that the Republicans’ contention that his job with Sweetser involves raising money or winning contracts is incorrect.

“What I’ve done is work with doctors and primary care physicians to integrate mental health and physical health services,” said Eves. “That’s it.”

Democrats on Wednesday provided a list of Republican lawmakers whose jobs, paired with their activity in the State House, could be seen as conflicts of interest. The list included Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, a member of the Health and Human Services Committee who works for Maine Veterans Home.

Asked by a reporter whether she or anyone else saw a conflict of interest in the 125th Legislature when then-Speaker of the House Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, a pharmacist, participated in debates and votes about prescription drugs, Sanderson said, “When Rep. Nutting was speaker of the House, he worked for a pharmacy. He didn’t own the pharmacy. There’s a difference.”

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, told reporters Wednesday afternoon that Republicans were merely trying to create a “distraction” from the debate over Medicaid expansion.

“What’s at hand and what we’ve been talking about for over a year is providing health care for 70,000 Mainers,” said Alfond. “I wish the same group of legislators would spend as much time learning the facts about what’s in front of us, what it could do for our economy, what it could do to dramatically change health care and the delivery of health care, as they do having press conferences basically with no merit. With every one of us, you could find some sort of conflict of interest.”

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, would not comment on whether anyone has filed a formal complaint about the matter. He said that if any complaints about the situation have been filed, their existence would be confidential.

Sanderson said even if there isn’t technically a conflict, Eves should bow out of the Medicaid debate to avoid the appearance of one.

“Speaker Eves is too personally and professionally involved in this [Medicaid expansion] bill to act in a professional, responsible manner,” she said. “We do not infer that there is a conflict of interest, but it certainly adds to the perception that it does. Some will say that we have a citizen Legislature and that these conflicts are bound to occur, but I disagree. Not to this degree.”

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.