Five years ago, Thomas Saviello resigned from the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee under a dark cloud.

Then a Democratic representative from Wilton, he was under siege from environmentalists, who accused him of pressuring the Department of Environmental Protection to drop a violation notice against his employer, a paper mill in Jay then owned by International Paper.

Saviello was never formally accused of any ethical breaches, and the issue eventually died down. But the controversy led to the resignation of the woman who was then DEP commissioner. And the entire affair left a bitter taste in Saviello’s mouth.

“I didn’t want to fight it anymore,” Saviello said of his resignation. “I didn’t want to be a focal point.”

Now Saviello is back, and not just as a Natural Resources Committee member. He was elected to the Senate as a Republican last fall, and his party, which now holds the majority in the Legislature, selected him as the chairman of the panel.

Saviello, whom environmental activists now describe as middle-of-the-road when it comes to protecting the environment, steps into the post at a time when Maine’s environmental laws are coming under intense scrutiny by Gov. Paul LePage and other GOP leaders. Saviello also serves on the new Joint Select Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform, which has launched a series of statewide public hearings on regulatory reforms to make Maine more business-friendly.

As Senate chair, Saviello is presiding over a committee that oversees the DEP, site-development and growth-management laws, waste management and disposal, mining, hydroelectric power and other key environmental issues.

Saviello, 60, grew up a mile from New York City in Leonia, N.J., where he played in a 13-acre woods next to the George Washington Bridge.

Those childhood experiences, he said, sparked a lifelong love of forests, which led to what he refers to as his first career as a forestry student. He earned a doctorate in forest resources from the University of Maine at age 28.

His second career was spent in Maine’s forest products industry. That career ended last month when he retired from his post as environmental manager at Verso Paper in Jay.

Environmental groups say that Saviello’s retirement has allayed their concerns about any possible conflict of interest between his job and his committee assignment.

Those concerns, which surfaced in 2006, led to the resignation of DEP Commissioner Dawn Gallagher, whose department had become too cozy with industrial polluters on the Androscoggin River, including Saviello’s employer, critics said.

First, the Natural Resources Council of Maine raised objections to the involvement of Saviello with a DEP reorganization plan, which the council claimed would weaken hazardous waste laws.

Then the Conservation Law Foundation accused Saviello of abusing his authority by pressuring state officials to drop a violation notice against his employer, International Paper in Jay — later bought by Verso Paper — saving his company $50 million.

Saviello denied any wrongdoing. The state Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices rejected the foundation’s request for an investigation. The complaints about Saviello resulted in the formation of a blue-ribbon panel on ethics reforms, but the Legislature ultimately shelved a proposal by the panel to tighten ethical standards.

The experience continues to haunt Saviello, who stepped down from the committee and refused to return even after the ethics commission rejected calls for an investigation.

Today, he counts the controversy among his worst life experiences. He also points proudly to the fact that his constituents have consistently returned him to Augusta by comfortable margins.

“I have a love affair with my people at home,” he said.

Saviello entered politics as a Democrat before becoming an independent. He joined the Republican Party in October 2009.

“I needed change. I am an independent thinker. I just feel comfortable where I am,” said Saviello.

He is a selectman in his hometown of Wilton, near Farmington, and a widower with two adult children. Saviello is known at the State House for his signature bow tie and affable ways.

He considers himself an environmentalist.

“I am a conservationist, not a preservationist,” he said.

As a state representative, he has earned a lifetime score of 63 percent from the Maine League of Conservation Voters, which tracks each legislator’s votes on key environmental issues. His score is slightly lower than the average lifetime score for a representative, which is 71 percent.

But his score is much higher than that of House Republicans, whose average lifetime score is 39 percent, compared with 89 percent for House Democrats.

“He is a pretty middle-of-the-road legislator. There are certain issues where he has fought for improved public health. On pesticide notification issues, he has been pretty good. The Androscoggin River was a trouble spot,” said Maureen Drouin, executive director of the Maine League of Conservation Voters.

Sean Mahoney, Maine director of the Conservation Law Foundation, said Saviello has a distinct point of view that the foundation is not always going to agree with, but he has an open mind.

“He is somebody you can have a conversation with,” said Mahoney.

Gary Vogel, chairman of the legislative committee of the Maine Real Estate & Development Association, described Saviello as thoughtful and knowledgeable.

“He knows the science behind environmental issues so he is not acting from emotion or conjecture. He brings a lot of knowledge and real world experience,” said Vogel.

Saviello was on the committee when it passed a law protecting vernal pools from development, by a unanimous vote. But a few days after LePage announced last week that he intended to weaken the measure, Saviello agreed some of its provisions should be loosened.

He said he remembers asking before the vote how many vernal pools existed in the state and was told about a dozen, and they were all in the southern tip of the state.

“I walked out of there thinking these were endangered only to find out they are all over the place, ” he said.

Saviello has filed about a half-dozen of the bills headed to the Natural Resources Committee, none of which he is “going to fall on the sword for,” he said.

One measure would allow development on sand dunes covered by impervious surfaces, an attempt to correct current regulations that have prevented a Wells hotel from putting an addition on land that is now an asphalt parking lot built on a sand dune.

He is also sponsoring a bill that would allow the grinding and vacuum packaging of mercury-containing fluorescent bulbs for disposal, which he hopes will spur new disposal businesses.

Another of his bills aims to speed up the regulatory process by cutting in half the time the DEP would be given to rule on a permit before it would have to outsource the permitting to a private contractor.

Saviello also wants to give the DEP commissioner authority to appoint more of the agency’s midlevel managers. The commissioner can now appoint only top leadership.

“That next level has to be more accountable,” said Saviello.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]