June 25, 2013

The lobbyist in the henhouse: Whose interests is Maine’s DEP commissioner serving?

For two years, public servant Patricia Aho has overseen Maine's environmental protection. But whom does she really serve? A seven-month investigation by the Telegram points to her former corporate clients. Part 1 of a 3-day series.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Originally published June 16, 2013

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Maine DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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Flagstaff Lake near Eustis, seen here last month with Bigelow Mountain in the background, experiences dramatic changes in water level in summer, thanks to utility drawdowns at a dam on the eastern side of the lake. Residents say the drawdowns adversely affect the quality of life in and around the lake. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection, led by Commissioner Patricia Aho, missed a filing deadline and deprived the state a say in how the dam is regulated. The DEP’s inaction cleared the way for the issuance of a new federal license that lacked stricter water-level rules and will remain in effect until 2036. Aho’s office called the blown deadline an oversight, but internal documents and department insiders tell a very different story.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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From lobbyist to DEP commissioner

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HERE'S WHAT WE FOUND

A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation has found Patricia Aho, a former industrial and corporate lobbyist who became commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection in 2011, has scuttled programs and fought against laws that were opposed by many of her former clients in the chemical, drug, oil, and real estate development industries. Under Aho, the DEP has:

Frozen the Kid Safe Products Act – a 2008 law to protect fetuses, babies and children from potentially damaging chemicals – by blocking efforts to bring more chemicals under the law’s jurisdiction, chemicals produced by Aho’s former lobbying clients.

Reduced enforcement actions by 49 percent against large developers and landowners. Aho had unsuccessfully fought to weaken many of the laws at issue as the longtime lobbyist of the Maine Real Estate and Development Association.

• Fought to roll back recycling programs that are strongly opposed by former clients of Aho and a still-active lobbyist, Ann Robinson, the governor’s regulatory reform adviser.

Oversaw a purge of information from the DEP’s website and a clampdown on its personnel, restricting their ability to communicate relevant information to lawmakers, the public, policy staff and one another.

THIS WEEK IN THE PRESS HERALD

MONDAY: Led by a former chemical industry lobbyist, the Maine DEP has stalled efforts to regulate substances that are potentially harmful to children and to the development of unborn fetuses. 

TUESDAY: So-called “product stewardship” regulations – even recycling efforts with industry and bipartisan support – find staunch resistance at the Maine DEP, where a former corporate lobbyist has taken the helm.

EUSTIS — On a Wednesday in April, Flagstaff Lake was draining away.

When full, it is the state's fifth largest freshwater body, nurturing a local tourist economy and providing boating and swimming opportunities for thousands of residents and others visiting Maine.

But on days like this -- when the dam owner opens the sluiceways of the Long Falls Dam to generate power farther downstream -- the lake begins to disappear, leaving behind thousands of acres of muddy and largely lifeless bottom. Docks are left high and dry and shorefront homes, camps and parks become isolated behind hundreds of yards of exposed, foul-smelling muck.

"They're killing our area up here," says Jay Wyman, a longtime selectman in Eustis, where many families moved in 1950 when the newly completed dam drowned their nearby hometowns of Flagstaff and Dead River.

People in the Eustis region fought for nearly a decade to defend their livelihoods, property values and tax base by pressuring state authorities to require the dam owner to keep the lake fuller in summer and early fall as part of its federal relicensing, which comes up for review only three or four times each century.

They'd sparred with the longtime owner, Florida Power & Light, from the hearing rooms of Augusta to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

By the summer of 2011, it looked like they would win -- until the state's top environmental official stepped in.

That's when the state commissioner of environmental protection, Patricia Aho -- who just months before had been working as a lobbyist for the law firm which represented the Florida power company -- met with Matthew Manahan, who was FPL's attorney and Aho's former colleague at Pierce Atwood, the state's largest law firm. After the meeting, Aho's department quietly did exactly what FPL hoped it would: nothing.

Despite detailed briefings from staff experts and a last-minute warning from the Attorney General's Office, the DEP quietly let the clock run out, missing a critical federal deadline to influence what happens at the dam for another quarter-century.

Her spokeswoman would later claim it had been an oversight, suggesting staff had dropped the ball when, internal documents and interviews with former staff reveal, the ball had been taken from them and handed to Pierce Atwood's client for an easy layup.

It is not an isolated incident.

A seven-month Maine Sunday Telegram investigation has found that commissioner Aho has acted against a range of consumer protection, pollution reduction and climate preparedness laws she had previously tried but failed to stop from passing the Legislature as a lobbyist for chemical, drug, oil and automobile companies. Present and former department employees say they have been pressured not to vigorously implement or enforce these laws, which were long opposed by companies represented by the commissioner's former law firm.

Gov. Paul LePage has pledged to make the state more business-friendly and to reduce red tape. But in many cases, the Department of Environmental Protection has been scuttling laws in ways that benefit Aho's old clients or those of past and present clients of another lobbyist embedded in his office: Ann Robinson, a top lobbyist at the Preti Flaherty law firm, who moonlights as the governor's regulatory reform adviser and has drafted and promoted policies that would benefit her clients.

Internal documents and interviews with about two dozen current and former DEP employees reveal how the administration has systematically sedated some of Maine's environmental laws.

Under LePage and Aho, the DEP has:

Stifled the Kid Safe Products Act -- a 2008 law to protect fetuses, babies and children from potentially damaging chemicals -- by blocking efforts to bring more chemicals under the law's jurisdiction. Many of the chemicals were produced by Aho's former lobbying clients, who fought similar laws in Connecticut, California and the state of Washington.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Current and former employees of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection say they’ve been pressured against vigorously implementing or enforcing laws that have long been opposed by companies represented by Commissioner Patricia Aho’s former employer, Pierce Atwood, the state’s largest law firm. The firm’s Portland office building on Commercial Street is pictured earlier this month.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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A sign warns about water-level changes at Flagstaff Lake in Eusis that could result from decisions by owners of the Flagstaff dam.

Colin Woodard / Staff Writer



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