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

(Continued from page 1)

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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.

Recommended a rollback or elimination of certain recycling programs that are strongly opposed by Aho's and Robinson's corporate clients in the automotive, waste and bottled-water industries, who would suffer if successful Maine programs that make manufacturers responsible for certain products are replicated in other states.

Presided over a dramatic downturn in enforcement of laws affecting developers, with initial enforcement actions in the Land Division falling by 49 percent under the LePage administration. (See related story: "They're just not doing enforcement.") Before becoming commissioner, Aho unsuccessfully fought to weaken many of the laws at issue as the longtime lobbyist of the Maine Real Estate and Development Association, or MEREDA.

Purged information from the DEP's website and clamped down on its personnel, restricting their ability to communicate information to lawmakers, the public, policy staff, and one another. (See related story: "Sources describe a department under duress.")

"In both enforcement and in what we communicate to the Legislature, it almost seems like the commissioner is still a lobbyist for the clients she represented before she came to office," says one current DEP employee, one of many interviewed for this story who did not want their names used for fear they would be fired.

Aho agreed to one interview with the Telegram but declined subsequent requests. In the interview, conducted in late February, the commissioner was asked about perceived conflicts of interest in connection with her former Pierce Atwood clients. Aho said that while she had been a lobbyist, two years had passed since she joined the department and that these were all former clients. She emphasized that she has met all disclosure requirements.

"That's all out there, that's public documents," she said. The Attorney General's Office "walked through to me how to enforce those issues" when she was appointed deputy commissioner in February 2011, and she cited examples of times in which she had declared her past lobbying associations in public hearings.

Robinson and Pierce Atwood managing partner Gloria Pinza did not respond to interview requests.

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Wednesday he was concerned but not surprised by the investigation's findings. "It's crystal clear that this governor and this commissioner have biases against certain programs and initiatives, and they constantly slow things down, change interpretations, and make things as challenging as possible," he said.

THE MESSAGE: CROSSING SPECIAL INTERESTS HAS CONSEQUENCES

Many of the nearly two dozen past and present DEP employees interviewed by the Telegram said they believed Aho was targeting diligent staffers at certain programs for isolation, elimination or reassignment, so their positions could be occupied with less knowledgeable replacements. (See related story: "Sources describe a department under duress.")

Few were willing to talk on the record for fear of reprisals against themselves, their colleagues or present employers.

Several cited the product recycling experts who they say were shut out of the creation of the department's report on product recycling programs. A two-time winner of the DEP commissioner's award was reassigned from leading efforts to educate businesses on energy efficiency to be a drain inspector, others noted.

But most pointed to one case that is part of the public record: the reassignment of the key staffer responsible for implementing the Kid Safe Products Act.

Andrea Lani, who had run the program since its inception and had been a technical expert at the department since 1999, was given the largely clerical task of compiling public records requests and was replaced by a less experienced employee.

The reassignment occurred shortly after Lani had provided expert testimony to the Legislature on March 29, 2011, on the harmful effects of bisphenol-A, which was to be banned from baby bottles and sippy cups under the 2008 law. She did so as a private citizen and had taken time off to do so, as per policy at the department, which had recommended and shepherded the ban a few months earlier under Gov. John Baldacci. But her stance was counter to that of Aho, who had recently been appointed deputy commissioner.

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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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