AUGUSTA — A legislative committee voted 10-2 Monday to endorse Gov. Paul LePage’s nominee to lead the state Department of Corrections.

Joseph Ponte, 64, of Pahrump, Nev., has worked in prison systems for 33 years. Most recently, he worked for the private Corrections Corp. of America as a prison warden in Nevada.

The Massachusetts native told Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee members that he wants to return to New England to be nearer to his family.

Democrats said they were concerned that Ponte owns stock shares in the Corrections Corp., the country’s largest private-sector corrections company.

The company, which is represented by lobbyist and former Maine House Minority Leader Josh Tardy, has said it might be interested in opening a facility in Milo.

The corporation also donated money to the Republican Governors Association, which transferred the money to its Maine political action committee. The PAC supported LePage.

Ponte said Monday that if confirmed by the Maine Senate, he will sell his shares in the company.

“If confirmed, I will divest myself of any stock holdings in CCA,” he said.

He also assured the committee that neither he nor LePage has any interest in privatizing state jail or prison facilities. He emphasized that the bulk of his career has been spent in public systems – including 21 years in Massachusetts – and that he has been employed by CCA for only the past eight years.

Dan Billings, chief legal counsel to LePage, said the governor decided early on to look outside the department after not finding a suitable candidate in Maine.

Ponte applied for the job through the governor’s transition team website, Billings said.

“While the governor believes that Mr. Ponte’s private-sector experience is a strength and will help him bring a new focus on efficiency and innovation as corrections commissioner, Mr. Ponte was not selected because of his private prison work or as part of a plan to privatize Maine’s prisons,” Billings said.

The job pays $70,616 to $102,689, and the salary is set by the governor.

Ponte told the committee he has two weaknesses: He is not from Maine, and he has little experience with juvenile corrections.

But he said he believes he can quickly familiarize himself with Maine’s system, and added that Maine already has a strong juvenile program. Maine has two juvenile facilities – one in South Portland and another in Charleston – that currently house 160 inmates.

“We should be working toward putting ourselves out of business,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be a great thing?”

The state Department of Corrections has six adult correctional facilities housing 2,300 prisoners.

The department has an annual budget of $145 million and nearly 1,400 employees.

Several groups testified in favor of Ponte, including the Maine County Commissioners Association, Maine Prosecutors Association and Maine Sheriffs Association.

Two people testified in opposition, including a representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents some corrections workers.

Harriett Spencer of AFSCME said the union has a hard time believing that Ponte was not brought to Maine to privatize the state system.

Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said she voted against Ponte because she, too, has concerns about possible future privatization.

Rep. Anna Blodgett, D-Augusta, also voted against Ponte, saying he lacks background in dealing with juveniles, female prisoners and those with mental illness.

Committee House Chairman Gary Plummer, R-Windham, said Ponte more than assured the committee that he has no intention of privatizing state correctional facilities.

“I think he brings a varied experience in prison settings,” he said. “I normally favor hiring locally, but he will come in with a clean slate if there are adjustments to be made.”

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]