Politics

June 18, 2013

Political parties split in response to newspaper series

Democratic leaders contemplate investigative action, while their Republican counterparts say Maine DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho was 'balancing the needs of our economy.'

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA – A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation into the inner workings of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection under Commissioner Patricia Aho has Democratic lawmakers fuming, but Republicans are showing strong support for Aho.

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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.

THE SERIES DAY TO DAY

SUNDAY: For two years, public servant Patricia Aho has overseen Maine’s environmental protection. But whom does she really serve? Our seven-month investigation points to her former corporate clients.

TODAY: 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.

The seven-month investigation by reporter Colin Woodard found that Aho, a former lobbyist for chemical, drug, oil and automobile companies, has acted against toxic chemical regulation, pollution reduction and climate change preparedness laws she had previously tried but failed to stop from passing in the Legislature.

Moreover, current and former department employees told Woodard they have been pressured not to vigorously implement or enforce those laws, which were long opposed by companies represented by the commissioner's former law firm.

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Woodard's series confirms what he has been told by current and former employees of the DEP, as well as of other departments and agencies throughout the administration of Gov. Paul LePage.

"Gov. LePage has made it very clear that if you don't believe in his world view or his agenda, he will intimidate you and insult you and try to threaten you with whatever he can. ... I mean he just goes after you in unprecedented ways," Alfond said.

He said Democratic leaders are contemplating what steps to take, such as asking the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee to investigate the matter.

Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said he's heard the same stories from employees at the DEP, as well as at the Department of Conservation and the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. The departments are "hemorrhaging" high-quality staffers who have years of scientific and technical experience but are not allowed to have any input in policy decisions, he said.

He said it's "very troubling" that businesses represented by Aho months before she became commissioner of the DEP in 2011 appear to have a lot of influence in decisions being made by the department.

Aho said in an interview Monday that her department is now focused more on educating the people and businesses it regulates about the rules rather than relying just on enforcement. She also said her past work as a lobbyist has no impact on how she does her job.

"I work for the people of Maine," she said.

Aho granted Woodard one interview in February, but declined subsequent requests during the investigation.

Republican lawmakers on Monday defended Aho's leadership of the DEP.

Under previous Democratic administrations, economic considerations didn't even "come into the picture" for the DEP, said House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport.

"Commissioner Aho's actions have been consistent with the rule of law while balancing the needs of our economy," he said.

Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, the ranking Senate Republican on the Legislature's Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said there is no evidence that Aho is giving her former lobbying clients any favors. "If anything, she is harder on them than she is on anybody else," he said.

While Democrats complain that it's harder now to get information from DEP staffers under Aho, Saviello said that LePage has established a strong "chain of command" in all of his departments and limits who is allowed to talk to lawmakers or the press.

He said Aho is implementing the policy directives of LePage.

"That's the way the boss wants it. You listen to your boss," he said.

Industry representatives also defended Aho on Monday.

Drew Sigfridson, president of the Maine Real Estate and Development Association, said his members haven't noticed any "rollback" of environmental standards or easing of restrictions.

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said the business community has found that Aho is more open to listening to businesses than past commissioners. But, he said, she hasn't compromised environmental standards.

"She strikes more of the balance we seek," he said. "We are not out to destroy the environment."

A spokeswoman for LePage said Monday that Aho's relationship with her past lobbying clients has had no impact on her decisions as commissioner and that Aho has a strong ethical code.

Adrienne Bennett said Aho is implementing LePage's policy, which is to change the culture at the DEP so that it provides more "balance" between job creation and environmental stewardship.

"With any change in the administration, there is going to be a different approach taken," Bennett said. "We own that. ... And Commissioner Aho has proven to be very successful in changing a culture and managing that department."

Bennett accused the newspaper of having a political agenda, and said the administration plans to respond to the series by submitting a column to the newspaper. She said officials have not decided who will write it.

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

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