AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul Le- Page’s newest Cabinet nominees have different backgrounds – one is an agency insider, one works in Nevada. But LePage said Monday that both have the same mission: to make their agencies more efficient.
The governor nominated David Bernhardt, 50, of Vassalboro to head the Department of Transportation. Bernhardt, a 26-year veteran of the department, is now its director of engineering and operations.
Joseph Ponte, 64, was nominated to lead the Department of Corrections. He is now the warden of a prison in Nevada that’s owned by Corrections Corp. of America, the country’s largest private-sector corrections company.
Ponte has more than 40 years of public- and private-sector experience in corrections, having served in corrections departments in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Idaho.
Most of his experience was in Massachusetts, where he began his career as a corrections officer in 1969 before getting promoted to superintendent and assistant deputy commissioner.
Ponte’s wife is a teacher in Massachusetts, and he wants to return to New England to be closer to her, said Dan Demeritt, spokesman for LePage.
LePage said he wants to increase efficiencies in both departments, but Ponte’s nomination doesn’t mean he is on the path to privatizing Maine’s prison system.
“My administration has absolutely no interest or intent of privatizing the current state system,” he said. “The only thing that I would ever do and contemplate is if a private-sector prison company wanted to come to Maine and build a prison and pay taxes and house out-of-state prisoners. I may consider that.”
Town officials in Milo have been in touch with Corrections Corp. of America since 2008 about the prospect of building a for-profit prison there, but the company has refused to commit unless Maine law is changed to allow prisoners to serve time in private facilities.
The company donated $25,000 to the Republican Governors Association, which transferred the money to its Maine political action committee. The committee spent its money to help elect LePage, a Republican, in November.
LePage said there is no connection between the prospect of a prison in Milo, Corrections Corp. of America’s donation and his selection of Ponte.
“There’s absolutely none,” he said. “He applied, we spoke to him and quite frankly he floated to the top very quickly.”
LePage said the position was offered to people from Maine, but “they refused it because we couldn’t pay enough.”
Ponte’s private-sector experience will help Maine’s corrections system become more efficient, LePage said.
“We want a very simple program where our prisons are very safe and secure and operated efficiently, and so I am appointing Joe Ponte,” he said. “I’m looking to take the politics out of our prisons. … Unfortunately, if you compare Maine to many other states, we spend far more on the per capita prison inmate than they do around the country, and I don’t understand why that’s the case.”
Democrats said they were “troubled” by Ponte’s nomination, but called Bernhardt’s selection “reasonable and responsible.”
“We are concerned about (LePage’s) suggestion that the state attract private prisons as part of an economic development strategy, especially because it may pose a conflict for Ponte, who worked at one of the most prominent private prison companies in the country,” House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, said in a prepared statement.
Ponte said he still owns stock in Corrections Corp. of America and has no plans to give it up.
Demeritt said Ponte’s stock came through an employee stock option and as part of a 401(k) plan. The holdings are minor, he said.
“He disclosed it, and if the state starts to do business with the company at some point in the future, then we’ll deal with it as we need to,” he said.
In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, said, “Bernhardt’s long history at the department makes him a strong choice for commissioner and exemplifies that he can work effectively in a bipartisan way to improve Maine’s transportation network.”
LePage said past transportation commissioners were quick to recommend Bernhardt for the job.
“Our policy for Transportation is going to be very simple – no politics, no special projects, no wonders of the world. We’re going to try to put our limited resources into as many roads and bridges as we can,” he said. “I’m going to work with Dave and look and find ways that we can take a lot of the work that’s done in the DOT and put it back out to the private sector.”
Both nominees need approval from legislative committees before facing Senate confirmation votes.
Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: email@example.com