AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s nominee to lead the Maine Department of Environmental Protection ran into opposition Tuesday from Democrats on a key legislative panel.
After five hours of public testimony, the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted 9-4 to endorse Darryl Brown as the department’s new commissioner. All the No votes were from Democrats. It was the first time that a committee has not given unanimous approval to a LePage appointee and signals that Brown could face serious opposition Thursday when the Senate votes on his nomination.
The debate over Brown’s appointment also serves as a precursor to the looming political fight over LePage’s plan to make sweeping changes to Maine’s environmental laws.
Much of the questioning Tuesday focused on ethical issues.
Brown is the sole owner of a Main-Land Development Consultants Inc., which helps developers win permits from local boards and the Department of Environmental Protection. Its current clients include Black Bear Entertainment, which is building a casino in Oxford.
Democrats are particularly concerned that Brown would not be able to assure the public that the agency could be impartial when making decisions that would affect his company or his clients.
Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said he voted to oppose Brown’s appointment because he was unsatisfied with Brown’s proposal for distancing himself from the company, saying that Brown’s plan would put the department “under a cloud” of suspicion.
Several people, however, testified to Brown’s character and urged lawmakers to take him at his word that that he would not benefit financially from his position.
“Darryl Brown does not do favors,” said his longtime friend and former Republican legislator, Porter Leighton of Falmouth. “The very best defense is character, and he has it in abundance.”
Brown said he plans to sell the company, which is based in Livermore Falls and has 11 employees. If confirmed, he plans to resign as president and establish a board of directors to run the company. The company’s staff would be prohibited from lobbying the state for any rule changes, he said.
In addition, the company would only supply him with general information about the company’s performance and not discuss specific clients. The board would negotiate the sale.
Moreover, Brown said he would recuse himself from the review of any permit applications that his company has before the department. The company typically gets eight permits a year from the department.
Brown’s plan, however, doesn’t go far enough because there is no formal process that requires him to sell the company, said Greg Cunningham, an attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation.
“The fact is, in the absence of complete divestiture, Mr. Brown will literally profit from his company’s work with the very rules, staff and administrative processes overseen by Mr. Brown,” he said.
Cunningham and Goodall said Brown should create a “blind trust,” in which a trustee would be charged with selling the company.
In a blind trust, a third party has total discretion to make investments on behalf of a beneficiary while the beneficiary is uninformed about the holdings of the trust.
Clint Boothby, an attorney for Brown, said that a blind trust is unacceptable because Brown needs to know the conditions of the sale of his company, which he started in 1974.
Brown told the committee that his retirement income depends on the proceeds of the sale, and it may take some time to sell it because he doesn’t want it sold at a “fire sale” price.
Danny Shaw, co-owner of Shaw Brothers Construction in Gorham, said he doubts the premise that Brown’s company would benefit if Brown headed the Department of Environmental Protection.
He said that Main-Land Development Consultants would be under such a public scrutiny that many developers would avoid hiring it.
“To think he is going to gain from this is crazy,” Shaw told lawmakers.
Democrats also questioned Brown about his involvement in LePage’s long-list of proposed changes to environmental regulations, including repealing laws that require manufacturers to take back recyclable goods for disposal and reversing a ban on the use of a chemical linked to cancer in children’s products.
Democrats appeared relieved when Brown said he was not been involved in the creation of that package of proposals.
Brown said he wants to make the department more responsive to the business community, with the goal of creating “more jobs and better jobs.”
At the same time, he said, he would also work to maintain the quality of Maine’s natural environment.
In answers to lawmakers’ questions, he said he supports nuclear power and drilling off-shore for oil because it would make Maine less dependent on foreign oil. While pollution is a factor in global warming, he said, cyclical natural causes are playing a larger role.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org