Gov. Paul LePage has been taking a beating from Democrats and advocates of the Kids Safe Products Act, a law that identifies and tries to phase out harmful chemicals from consumer products.
The criticism stems from the governor’s decision last week to put four chemicals on the so-called priority list, supposedly ending the administration’s nearly three-year resistance to a law that it once tried to repeal.
But advocates of the law and Democrats in the House of Representatives called the LePage administration’s list a “sham,” arguing that many of the chemicals elevated as a priority – mercury, arsenic, cadmium and formaldehyde – were already being phased out of consumer products. Groups like Environmental Health Strategies and the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine argued that the LePage administration’s action was “election-year trickery,” a move that symbolically put the governor on the right side of a law designed to protect pregnant women and children while not upsetting industry allies.
It’s not clear if it was intentional, but LePage isn’t the only one implicated in the criticism.
The administration’s announcement closely coincided with the recent demise of a bill sponsored by Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, that would have added phthalates to the priority list. Phthalates, added to plastics to make them more flexible and durable, have been in the news a lot lately because they mimic hormones and have been linked to premature birth, adverse impacts on male fetuses and health problems in teenagers.
Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, voted with the Republican minority to spike Grant’s bill, prompting questions about whether he did so to preserve or obtain Republican votes on other measures, most notably Medicaid expansion, a priority for Democratic lawmakers and a key component of the Affordable Care Act.
At the center of this rumored deal is Sen. Tom Saviello, a moderate Republican from Wilton. Saviello, who has publicly endorsed Medicaid expansion, once played a key role in staving off the repeal of the Kids Safe Products Act in 2011 (the Environmental Health Strategies Center thanked him for it). However, Saviello has since drawn advocates’ ire for vocally opposing measures to strengthen the law, including one sponsored by former Senate Democratic leader Seth Goodall of Richmond, whose high-profile bill met a conspicuously quiet death earlier this year.
Saviello said he objected to Goodall’s bill because it was an overreach and unraveled the compromise he worked to achieve in 2011. Advocates suspected a more nefarious motive, specifically the $5,250 that the American Chemistry Council has donated to Saviello’s leadership PAC.
Saviello on Tuesday took exception to the implication that his resistance to Goodall’s bill, or Grant’s bill, was a quid pro quo with the American Chemistry Council, a leading opponent of the Kids Safe law. He also flatly denied speculation that he threatened to withhold his support for Medicaid expansion if Alfond didn’t vote with Republicans to oppose Grant’s bill.
“I’ve already said that I support Medicaid expansion and that’s not going to change,” he said.
Alfond, meanwhile, also denied that his opposition to Grant’s bill had anything to do with a deal for Medicaid expansion.
“Absolutely not,” he said last week. “Whoever is saying that is 100 percent making things up and I don’t appreciate it.”
Nonetheless, Alfond felt compelled to explain his vote, which he did in an email to Senate Democrats. He cited the LePage administration’s announcement about the four priority chemicals.
While he wished that the list was longer and included phthalates, the governor was technically complying with the law.
“Before the KSPA, chemicals were cherry picked individually and there was no rhyme or reason,” he wrote. “I don’t want to go back to that system.”
He added, “Finally, as (you) may know, this bill is a political (lightning) rod (all of you remember Seth’s bill) and given the short session and how much bipartisan work is ahead of us, I voted to keep this bill out of the mix.”
PACs AND THE 2011 CASINO VOTE
The 2011 ballot initiative to establish a Lewiston casino is probably best remembered for two things: 1. A whiny slogan (“It’s our turn!”) 2. Its overwhelming defeat (63 percent of voters voted against it.).
But Maine Ethics Commission documents show that there was a lot more going on with the political action committees pushing the casino than was made public in 2011.
On Thursday, the commission will vote on recommendations from its staff, which found that the political action committees advocating for the casino reported contributions that were “objectively false” and that real donors were never disclosed. Those donors include two gambling companies in Maryland and an Oklahoma man who recently struck a plea deal with Florida authorities after facing 205 felony counts for a gambling operation posing as a veterans charitable organization.
The ethics staff investigation pulled bank records for the PACs to obtain the real donor information. Now the commission will have to decide whether to penalize the operators of the two PACs – the Lewiston-Auburn duo of Stavros Mendros and Peter Robinson – for a late disclosure filing. Staff originally recommended an $85,000 fine, but has since backed off a specific amount as new information has surfaced to complicate the case. Essentially, Mendros and Robinson are claiming that they relied on the statements of out-of-state donors. The out-of-state donors, meanwhile, are saying they never provided inaccurate information to Mendros and Robinson. Ethics documents describe this as “they said-they said.”
Given the players in this mess, it’s no wonder that the ethics staffers are having difficulty determining whom to believe. Mendros has been involved with some unsavory business before; in 2007, he pleaded guilty and was fined for three counts of falsely notarizing the signatures of petition circulators for gambling petitions. Also, a spokesman for GT Source, the company originally and incorrectly listed as the PACs’ primary donor, told the Sun Journal in Lewiston that the company had in fact made the donations.
And then there’s this guy: Chase Burns, the 37-year-old Oklahoma businessman whose plea deal in the Florida gambling scheme helped him avoid jail time. An investigation by the Oklahoma attorney general showed that Burns invested in a yacht to entertain Florida politicians and there have been multiple press accounts of his involvement in a video gambling controversy in North Carolina (CliffsNotes version: North Carolina has barred video sweepstakes, but the machines continue to proliferate thanks to lax regulatory oversight and legal tweaks; meanwhile, the industry, and specifically Burns, has emerged as a top donor to Republican politicians.).
With all of that as background, Thursday’s ethics commission hearing should be interesting.
THE PRESSURE TO TWEET
“They’re trying to get me to tweet more.”
Many a reporter has uttered the above phrase, but apparently political operatives are also under pressure to tweet.
Last week Ted O’Meara, the campaign manager for independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, sent a tweet that suddenly became a story, at least for one newspaper.
On Monday, O’Meara tweeted: “Gov. LePage publishes campaign brochure at taxpayer expense, hosted on maine.gov (the state website). Outrageous.”
O’Meara’s complaint was about the book published by the LePage administration that highlights the governor’s achievements since taking office in 2011. O’Meara said the book was essentially a campaign document and that state resources should not have paid for it.
“Nobody can look at that book and say that it’s anything but campaign material,” O’Meara said.
Using taxpayer dollars to produce campaign literature is definitely a no-no. The problem, however, is defining what campaign literature is. Staff members at the Maine Ethics Commission essentially say that literature which expressly advocates for a particular candidate should be paid for by an election committee or political action committee, not state resources. But there’s a broad gray area, and the LePage administration isn’t the first to push the limits. In fact, one could argue that news releases sent by partisan staff or the constituent mail highlighting lawmakers’ accomplishments serve the same purpose as helping politicians get elected.
That gray area is probably the reason why O’Meara said he wasn’t filing an ethics complaint against LePage, even though he believes the book is campaign fodder paid for with taxpayer dollars.
“I sent the tweet because they’re trying to get me to tweet more,” he said. “I woke up the next day and saw a headline saying I’d attacked LePage.”
Welcome to Twitter, Ted.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: