Friday, April 18, 2014
AUGUSTA - A casino planned in Oxford played a central role in Darryl Brown's decision to resign over allegations that he has a conflict of interest.
Brown owns Main-Land Development Consultants, the primary consulting company that Black Bear Entertainment is using to win the local and state permits it needs to build a casino in the western Maine town.
While Brown was commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, the DEP approved all of the development permits needed for the first phase of the project -- a 65,000-square-foot casino, a buffet area and a lounge. The site on Route 26 is now being cleared of trees.
Brown had recused himself from those permitting decisions and had set up procedures that delegated his authority and isolated him from any decisions related to Black Bear Entertainment.
State law prohibits anyone from serving as commissioner if 10 percent or more of his or her income in the previous two years was derived from obtaining permits from the DEP.
Although it has yet to be determined whether Brown's income reached the 10 percent threshold, Attorney General William Schneider said in a letter to Brown that he did not believe recusal was an option for Brown.
"Therefore, if in fact such a conflict exists, it would undermine your legal authority to act on any matter coming before you as Commissioner," Schneider wrote.
Schneider said that any delegation would leave him with no decision-making authority, "which is a result that makes no sense and disregards the apparent purpose of the statute."
Brown said in an interview Wednesday that he put the proper procedures in place for the casino project to avoid any conflict of interest.
When asked if the issue will call into question any permits already approved by the DEP, he said, "I certainly hope not."
Samantha DePoy-Warren, spokeswoman for the department, said Brown had decided last week to step down, after the Androscoggin River Alliance appealed the DEP's decision to issue permits for the casino.
As part of its appeal to the Board of Environmental Protection, the group argued that the DEP lacked authority to issue a wastewater discharge permit for the project because Brown owns the developers' lead consulting firm.
After the appeal was filed, DePoy-Warren said, Brown told the governor that he did not want to stand in the way of a development project that would create hundreds of jobs.
She said Brown also was upset that the integrity of the agency was being publicly criticized.
"Darryl was not going to stand for that anymore," she said. "He graciously went to the governor and said, 'I am going to step aside.'"
The governor's office confirmed that LePage and Brown spoke last week about the appeal, and that Brown said he would do whatever was necessary to not inhibit the casino development.
Steve Hinchman, the attorney for the Androscoggin River Alliance, said Schneider's letter calls into question whether the casino's permits have any validity.
In its appeal, the environmental group is asking the Board of the Environmental Protection to assume jurisdiction for the project and start the permitting process over.
Peter Martin, a lobbyist for Black Bear Entertainment, said the company plans to move forward on its construction plans.
He said the company submitted its application to the state at the end of November or early December, and the Senate didn't confirm Brown until Feb. 1
As soon as he became commissioner, Martin said, Brown recused himself from the decision-making process.
"It is our belief those approvals will stand, and it's business-as-usual for us," Martin said.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at firstname.lastname@example.org