July 25, 2013

Request for probe of Maine DEP on hold

A legislator says he needs to refine the goals of any review, which he's seeking in reaction to a Press Herald investigation.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Lawmakers have decided to delay a decision on whether to launch an investigation of the conduct of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection under Commissioner Patricia Aho.

click image to enlarge

Lawmakers have decided to delay a decision on whether to launch an investigation of the conduct of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection under Commissioner Patricia Aho.

Carl D. Walsh / Staff File Photo

On Thursday, the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee was to take up a request for an investigation submitted earlier this month by Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville. But early in the day, Johnson asked that the item be removed from the agenda so he could collect additional information and submit a more targeted request.

"The request has not been withdrawn, but I pulled it off the agenda," Johnson said late Thursday morning. "It's a matter of trying to correctly formulate the line of questioning."

Earlier this month, Johnson wrote the head of the state's independent auditing agency, the Office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability, or OPEGA, asking it to determine if the DEP had committed "unethical behaviors"; failed to uphold its legislative mandates; or had broken any laws "in the course of actions or failures to act as reported in the recent Portland Press Herald series."

The series reported the results of a seven-month investigation and was published in the Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram on June 16, 17 and 18. It revealed how Aho had stifled laws and programs she had been paid to defeat in her previous career as a lobbyist for the oil, chemical, waste management, drug and real estate development industries.

The series also related allegations of widespread intimidation of DEP staff, and examined how the department missed a key deadline in the relicensing of the Flagstaff Dam in Eustis -- to the benefit of the dam's owner, which was represented by the law firm for which Aho had done her lobbying.

Johnson said he found the allegations in the series troubling, but that his initial request had been too broad.

"If it's worth doing, it's worth doing it right, and something that's too general or isn't of a reasonable scope for OPEGA to investigate isn't bound to succeed," he said. "We will move ahead as quickly as I am confident we can proceed."

The Government Oversight Committee, where the decision to launch an OPEGA investigation would be made, next meets Sept. 12.

"We want to make sure this gets done right because we need to distinguish between policy decisions we don't like and what laws or policies were not followed," said Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, who co-chairs the committee. "That's an important line we try to draw on this and other issues before us."

On July 11, two advocacy groups, Maine Conservation Voters and the Maine People's Alliance, presented an online petition signed by more than 2,500 Maine residents and submitted to the Legislature. It called on the state to "investigate unethical and improper behavior at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection."

House Democratic leaders said at the time that they shared the petitioners' concerns. But the senior Republican House leader, Kenneth Fredette of Newport, said he "would not be inclined to support an investigation" based only on a newspaper series.

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

cwoodard@pressherald.com

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