AUGUSTA — Maine’s largest environmental organization accused Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday of waging a “smear campaign” and harassing its donors with a letter outlining what he says are the group’s “job-crushing, anti-business policies.”

Last week, LePage sent a letter to about 200 Natural Resources Council of Maine members saying the organization supports policies that undermine Maine’s manufacturing base and impede the growth of good-paying jobs. The letter, which followed weeks of LePage statements highly critical of the organization, concludes by saying that “your financial support of NRCM is costing rural Mainers good jobs and keeping them mired in poverty.”

“NRCM is not interested in a balance,” LePage wrote in the letter. “It is an activist group that says ‘no’ to every opportunity to allow Mainers to prosper, and it is working to make rural Maine a national park virtually devoid of human activity or meaningful employment. I would request that you carefully review NRCM’s policy positions before donating to them in the future.”

NRCM officials fired back Thursday, accusing the governor of attempted intimidation and “spending Maine taxpayer money on his smear campaign against NRCM.”

“It appears the governor has taken the unprecedented step of directing public employees to hunt down the names and addresses of NRCM members so that he can send harassment letters to their homes,” said Lisa Pohlmann, NRCM’s executive director. “This has got to stop. The governor should not be using Maine taxpayer money for his vendetta against NRCM.”

Pohlmann said the organization has submitted a public records request for documents within the governor’s office – and expenditures – related to the letter and NRCM.

“I wasn’t anticipating something this personal to our members, and that, really, was the line-crosser for us,” Pohlmann said during a State House news conference.

SEVERAL MONTHS OF FRICTION

LePage has lashed out at NRCM repeatedly in recent months during speeches and weekly town hall-style forums, calling the group one of the state’s “biggest enemies” and displaying the name and picture of one staffer on a “WANTED” poster at forums. He often accuses NRCM of blocking economic development, promoting higher-cost renewable energy and opposing regulatory reforms.

Most recently, LePage has cited NRCM’s involvement in the campaign to designate a national monument on 87,500 acres of donated forestland east of Baxter State Park – a proposal he vociferously opposes.

Although LePage said Wednesday night that he had obtained an NRCM “mailing list,” a spokeswoman for the governor said Thursday that administration staff culled the names from the organization’s website. NRCM’s most recent annual report, for instance, lists the names – but not the addresses – of hundreds of long-term donors as well as individuals who have given $1,000 or more.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said she could not provide cost or staff-time estimates for compiling the letters. But Bennett accused NRCM of using “Washington-style politics” and spending “millions of dollars trying to push the bills they want forward and trying to oppose the bills they don’t want daylight to see.”

“If NRCM is threatened by the governor writing a letter to its members about what we are witnessing during the legislative session and throughout the year, it is what it is,” Bennett said. “We are trying to move Maine forward, and the reality is that NRCM opposes anything that this administration puts forward to help lower energy costs and to create more jobs.”

NRCM is one of the most visible and vocal organizations in Augusta during legislative battles over environmental policy, mining, timber harvesting, pollution regulation, renewable energy and land conservation. The group’s lobbyists are well known in the State House, and NRCM has successfully drawn individual members to Augusta on such issues as solar energy, the Land for Maine’s Future Program and mining.

The organization reported roughly $2 million in donations and grants in 2014 plus $300,000 in additional revenue, according to federal filings required of nonprofit organizations.

GOVERNOR STEPS UP CRITICISM

In 2015, NRCM had seven staffers registered as lobbyists with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices and paid out $24,390.70 in “total compensation for lobbying” during that year’s legislative session. Federal tax filings show NRCM spent $590,000 on “communications” and $365,000 on “environmental advocacy.”

Although his administration has clashed with NRCM since his first months in office in 2011, LePage recently has stepped up his rhetoric and urged supporters to help “defeat” the organization by backing his economic agenda. NRCM supporters often respond that protecting Maine’s environment is critical to the state’s economy.

In April, LePage labeled the environmental group one of the “biggest enemies of the state of Maine,” along with the progressive activist group the Maine People’s Alliance.

“And not only are they the enemies, they intimidate,” LePage told several thousand attendees at the Maine State Republican Convention. “They will do and say anything, they lie through their teeth and they scare Republicans in election years because they gang up on people.”

LePage has hinted several times that he would take action against NRCM. And during a town hall in Millinocket on Wednesday evening, he bashed the organization for opposing a controversial bill last year that sought to change state environmental regulations to allow mining under Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.

“I got their mailing list, by the way, and most of the people who contribute come from around the country,” he told a friendly crowd of roughly 70 people. “They get money from all over, as far as California, Florida, Texas, they are all over the country. They are raising hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars to come to Maine to say that we cannot have mining in Aroostook County, where we have double-digit unemployment, we have a lot of people looking for work.

“We will not have mining in Maine because the people of Brunswick and Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth and Portland say we can’t,” LePage said.

POTENTIAL NRCM FUNDRAISING TOOL

Asked about the organization’s donor base, Pohlmann said the “vast majority” of NRCM’s roughly 16,000 members are full-time Maine residents. It was clear Thursday that the organization hoped to use LePage’s letter as a rallying and fundraising tool against a governor who Pohlmann described as “the most anti-environment governor in Maine history.”

The organization emailed the letter to most of its members Thursday.

“I think the important thing is that our members are outraged and they are going to choose to act in all different kinds of ways,” Pohlmann said. “Some of them may choose to send us additional funding, some of them may write the governor a letter directly.”

Several people who received letters from LePage expressed their anger Thursday.

“The bottom line is I think he has crossed the line in terms of trying to intimidate donors to NRCM,” Jake Plante of Brunswick said during Thursday’s news conference. “It’s inappropriate from both a government standpoint and, if you read the letter, you will see that the tone is one of trying to intimidate the membership of NRCM.”

 

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