Maine Public Utilities Commissioner David Littell has recused himself from a controversial case involving Nestle Waters North America and the privately held public water utility in Fryeburg.

The move, announced in a letter to legislators this week, follows passage of a new law allowing for the appointment of alternate PUC commissioners when one or more of the three regular members have conflicts of interest.

All three PUC commissioners have now recused themselves from the Nestle Waters case over past associations with the conglomerate, a subsidiary of Swiss foods giant Nestle SA, which pumps and bottles water in Maine under the Poland Spring brand.

The case involves approval of a long-term contract between Nestle Waters and the Fryeburg Water Co., a family-controlled water utility, at rates critics say are too low. All three commissioners as well as the state’s public advocate, who is charged with representing ratepayers, had ties to Nestle Waters.

Littell’s association was the loosest of the four: A decade ago, he was a partner at Pierce Atwood, the state’s largest law firm, which has represented and continues to represent Nestle in the case. Unlike the others, he had not personally worked on Nestle’s behalf.

Commissioner Mark Vannoy recused himself in 2012 because of past work he had done as an engineer for Nestle Waters in Fryeburg and other sites. PUC Chairman Tom Welch, who was Nestle Waters’ attorney at Pierce Atwood until his appointment in March 2011, recused himself in October 2013, effectively suspending consideration of the case for lack of a quorum.

Public Advocate Timothy Schneider also worked for Nestle Waters on the Fryeburg case as a Pierce Atwood attorney until 2013. He has also recused himself, and one of his deputies is handling the case for his office.

Until April, Maine had no legal mechanism by which to appoint alternate commissioners when regular members recused themselves. A new law was passed at the end of the session, spearheaded by an unlikely team: Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic Rep. Diane Russell of Portland.

The final version of the bill, drawn up by the governor and sponsored by Russell, directs the governor to appoint three retired judges or justices to serve as alternate commissioners, subject to legislative conformation.

The PUC staff would then “in a transparent manner, randomly assign” the commissioners until a quorum has been re-established on the case.

“It’s my understanding that the governor didn’t want people to feel that there was any politicizing of the process in any way,” Russell said of the changes LePage made to the bill, including having former judges – not former PUC commissioners – serve as the alternates. “Judges are held to a higher standard, so he felt more comfortable that they would not be politicized.”

LePage, who was traveling, was not available for comment Friday.

The initial alternates have been vetted by a legislative panel and on May 6 were randomly assigned by PUC staff.

They are Justice Paul Rudman, Judge John Atwood and Judge Francis Marsano, in that order.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

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