February 26, 2010

Plum Creek paid legal fees of supporters

JOHN RICHARDSON

— By

Staff Writer

Plum Creek Timber Co. paid tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees for groups that supported its development plan in the Moosehead Lake region, according to the company and some of its supporters.

The company also paid about $1.7 million to the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission, which used the money to cover other costs of the four-year review that ended with final approval of the plan in September.

While unprecedented in scale, the payments did not violate any laws or rules, according to an assistant attorney general. Plum Creek's payments to the state commission, in fact, were required by a 2005 state law that protected taxpayers from the cost of handling such large development proposals.

Representatives of the company and the commission said they wish the process had been shorter and less expensive. But Plum Creek's grants and fee payments, they said, did not improperly influence the process or the outcome.

''There's nothing in the rule that requires them to tell us if they're giving money to anybody,'' said Catherine Carroll, director of the commission.

Opponents of the plan, including some who have appealed the approval in court, disagree. The nation's largest timberland owner effectively used its wealth to manipulate the review, they say.

''This gave Plum Creek and Plum Creek-funded organizations an inordinate amount of time to dominate the hearings and ask their questions,'' said Hillary Lister, a volunteer with Native Forest Network, which opposed the project.

The payments to groups such as the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council, the Maine Snowmobile Association and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce should have been disclosed to the land use commission, said Cathy Johnson, north woods project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, one of a few groups that have filed court appeals to block the project.

''It's the applicant paying to get testimony that's purporting to be independent but in fact isn't,'' she said.

Opponents also say they have misgivings about Plum Creek's $1.7 million payment to the state agency that reviewed the plan. They also acknowledge the state may have no alternative, given the agency's small staff and the lack of money to expand it.

''It's a problem when agencies like LURC are not adequately funded,'' Johnson said.

Seattle-based Plum Creek was the first developer to pay the land use commission's extraordinary review costs under a law passed in 2005 with little or no opposition. Three wind farm developers have since covered review costs, although the bills have been nowhere near as big.

The $1.7 million from Plum Creek paid for two consultants who led the technical review, and for legal costs, court reporters and transcripts, hotels and meeting rooms. Plum Creek didn't pay for the agency's staff time, but it did pick up the per-meeting compensation -- $55 -- for the commission's appointed members, Carroll said.

The commission periodically presented Plum Creek with budget updates, and the company never objected, she said.

The process also was expensive for the various groups that were allowed to participate in several weeks of legal hearings on the project. Those daily sessions involved legal testimony and cross-examination, mostly by attorneys.

''There were a lot of groups like ours that certainly wanted to intervene and support what (Plum Creek was) doing, and the way the system was set up it would have been impossible for us to afford it,'' said Bob Meyers, director of the Maine Snowmobile Association.

Plum Creek agreed to pay the attorney fees for a group that included the snowmobile association and organizations representing ATV riders, outdoor guides and bow hunters. The fees ended up exceeding $100,000, Meyers said, although he didn't know the exact amount.

Meyers denied that Plum Creek bought the group's support. The association supported the company's plan long before the hearings, and Plum Creek didn't tell the association's lawyers what to say or what questions to ask, he said.

It's not clear what Plum Creek paid in total for the legal fees of its supporters.

Kathy Budinick, a company spokeswoman, said the contribution amounts are private information, but money was given to the economic development councils of Piscataquis and Somerset counties, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Snowmobile Association, the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine and the Coalition to Preserve and Grow Northern Maine. Some of those organizations led coalitions with similar groups.

''A few of the supporters, long-term supporters for years, really needed some budget resources to complete the process. We were really happy to help a few of them out,'' Budinick said.

The company often contributes money to community groups or outdoors organizations, although it doesn't typically pay legal fees in cases like this, she said. ''No, it's not real typical, but neither is a project of this size,'' Budinick said.

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said he didn't know how much Plum Creek contributed toward his organization's costs. But, he said, it's not the first time the chamber has solicited financial help from a member that it was speaking for in a legislative or regulatory process.

''I was very proud and pleased to be able to stand up and represent a business proposal and what that business proposal meant for the state,'' he said. ''I consider that part of my responsibility.''

While it was widely known that Plum Creek was paying some of the land commission's costs, many of those involved say the financial support for supporters wasn't so public.

Jerry Reid, an assistant attorney general, said he remembers financial support being disclosed under cross-examination during the commission's legal hearings. ''So this has been part of the public record for at least a couple of years,'' Reid said.

Many participants said they didn't know the extent of the contributions.

''We looked at that bank of lawyers and we wondered, but we had no information,'' said Johnson, of the Natural Resources Council.

Lister, who participated in the hearings at her own expense, said Native Forest Network repeatedly asked witnesses if they were receiving money from Plum Creek. In a couple of cases, the answer was ''no'' or ''not that I know of,'' she said.

Jym St. Pierre, a former planner for the commission who is now Maine director of RESTORE: The North Woods, said the payments could become an issue in the appeal, or in the Legislature.

''It definitely raises some legal questions because it sets a precedent. If you've got deep enough pockets to buy support, you can manipulate the process,'' he said.

Carroll, the commission's director, said she didn't know about all of the contributions at the time, but doesn't consider that a problem.

''Even if I was aware of it, it's irrelevant or moot to the (commission) process,'' Carroll said. The payments to the supporters and the agency had no influence on the outcome, she said.

''This commission based (its) decision solely on the relevant rules and regulations that were in place,'' she said, ''and I'm confident that a judge (in the appeal case) is going to make that same decision.''

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

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