A top University of Maine official participated in a previously undisclosed meeting in which he provided inside information aimed at helping one company bid on a lucrative energy contract, despite denials that he had any role in it, according to a sworn statement by a business owner.

According to an affidavit from Sam Eakin, a Maine entrepreneur, Jake Ward, the vice president for innovation and economic development, provided information to parties that stood to gain if a New York energy company won the university’s long-term contract to provide renewable power. The Maine Sunday Telegram has also obtained a new recording of phone conversations among stakeholders in the energy bid that implicate Ward’s involvement. ConEdison Solutions ultimately won the exclusive right to negotiate a deal potentially worth $150 million to supply power to the Orono campus by burning wood at a now-closed paper mill in neighboring Old Town.

The new information raises further questions about the integrity of the process used by UMaine to award the contract. The process has been clouded by accusations of unfair advantages; evidence of conflicts of interest between the university system chancellor and the engineering company he formerly ran, James W. Sewall Co. of Old Town; Sewall’s alignment with ConEd; and legal challenges from Eakin, who claims he was unfairly pushed out of a deal to buy the mill.

On Feb. 4, the newspaper published a story and secret audio recordings from conference calls in which a consultant working for a ConEd partner discusses how Ward provided insider information aimed at helping ConEd win the contract. Ward denied the allegation and the university said it looked into the matter and could find no credible evidence.

Jake Ward is UMaine’s vice president of innovation and economic development.

But last week, the newspaper was given a signed, notarized affidavit from Eakin, manager of Relentless Capital Co. of Cape Elizabeth. Eakin said he was in the room when Ward told ConEd partners that the contract was “yours to lose” during a business meeting in 2016. Eakin signed the document under penalty of perjury, if his comments are proved to be materially false. Eakin wrote the affidavit to counter what he called false and misleading statements by the university in recent media coverage.

The newspaper also obtained a new recording in which references are made by the ConEd team to an upcoming meeting with Ward and other university officials, at which they planned to seek advice about a competitor in the bid process.

Taken together, the statement and recorded call bolster previous allegations and raise fresh questions as to whether Ward met with and coached parties associated with ConEd.

Addressing these allegations is important for several reasons.

Two competing companies that lost the bid last year filed formal appeals charging in part that the cost of power from ConEd’s plan would be much higher than necessary, placing a multimillion-dollar burden on the public university and Maine taxpayers who support it. A similar assessment is contained in the sworn statement to the newspaper.

Any coaching provided to one party in a competitive, public university bid process and not others would violate the University of Maine System’s code of ethics and its procurement policy. They spell out that all bidders must be treated equally and with good faith. The code of ethics also says: “Neither the chancellor nor a president may have a direct or indirect financial interest in any contract entered into by the university.”

Lawmakers on the Legislature’s education committee said they found the allegations disturbing and called for an inquiry. Attempts by the Telegram on Friday to reach the committee’s co-chairs for updated information about the inquiry were not successful.

On a larger scale, lingering controversy over the bid process further clouds redevelopment plans at the Old Town mill. The complex is considered important for Maine’s ambitions to transform old papermaking sites into new-economy incubators for wood-based bioproducts, including chemicals and fuels.

After the newspaper’s Feb. 4 story, the university system’s trustees and legal counsel reviewed the charges. They concluded that Ward wasn’t involved in scoring the bids or awarding the contract, and that statements to the contrary couldn’t be verified and weren’t credible.

But on Feb. 9, the university system did confirm a point raised in the newspaper story – that James Page, the university system’s chancellor, had an ongoing financial stake with Sewall, one of the parties connected to ConEd. Page was Sewall’s chief executive prior to becoming chancellor in 2012, and the university system acknowledged that he had signed a personal loan guarantee to help finance the company. That loan has yet to be discharged.

The trustees’ audit committee stressed that Page had no policy role in the request-for-proposal process, but said he should recuse himself from any actions involving the energy contract, to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.

After receiving the sworn statement last week, the Telegram forwarded excerpts to the university system’s general counsel and public affairs director for comment. The university system, speaking on behalf of Ward, confirmed that the meeting in question took place, but that given the material it reviewed, there was no credible evidence of inappropriate coaching or information sharing.

The university system reiterated that Ward had no access to information about the RFP, that the final bid criteria hadn’t been created at the time of the meeting. It said each respondent was treated equally.

“The Board of Trustees Audit Committee has reviewed the university procurement process in the UMaine energy solutions solicitation,” said Dan Demeritt, the public affairs director, “and reached the unanimous conclusion that Jake Ward was not involved in the development or scoring of this RFP. The university continues to take Vice President Ward at his word that he did not coach anyone on how to respond to this solicitation.”

‘UNEXPECTED AND UNNECESSARY RESPONSE’

Eakin was on track to buy the mill in 2016, with plans to redevelop it, but claims in a lawsuit that he was illegally pushed out by parties aligned with ConEd. His attempt to block the sale in court failed in late January, and the mill now is owned by a limited liability company with ties to ConEd.

In his statement, Eakin says that he was in a meeting on or about Aug. 20, 2016, with Ward. Also at the meeting were William Firestone of MFGR, the head of the liquidation firm that then owned the mill; George Gervais, Maine’s outgoing state economic development director; David Mahan, Old Town City Council president; and David Edson, president of the James W. Sewall engineering firm in Old Town. At the time, Eakin and Sewall were partners working to redevelop the mill.

The meeting was held at Sewall’s offices in Old Town. The purpose was to help coordinate the purchase and financing of the mill.

In his sworn statement, Eakin said:

“During the August 20 meeting, Firestone asked Ward about the status of the RFP, because the university had not yet announced which bids would proceed past Phase I. Jake Ward responded by looking at Edson and stating that the award was ‘yours to lose.’

“At the time, Edson was 50 percent owner of (the partnership) which had led the effort to redevelop the pulp mill. I found this to be an unexpected and unnecessary response to the question posed by Firestone, especially in front of Gervais, who represented the governor’s office.”

In the sworn statement, Eakin makes note of the newspaper’s recordings of members of the ConEd team that included John Richardson of Brunswick. Richardson is a lawyer, former Maine House speaker and state economic development commissioner who was working with CVG Inc., a trio of forest products companies aligned with ConEd.

Eakin continues: “In a tape recording of a discussion among members of the Con Ed RFP team, published by the Maine Sunday Telegram, John Richardson stated that Ward had made the same statement in another meeting. I have never met John Richardson, and I did not know of his involvement in efforts to derail negotiations between MFGR (the mill liquidation firm) and (our partnership) until a later date.”

Eakin also maintains that Jake Ward’s communication with ConEd and CVG was ongoing. He attributes that information to Ward Strosser, the ConEd manager in charge of the UMaine bid process.

Eakin stated: “Strosser later informed me that he, Ward, Edson, Mahan, Richardson, and Tom Gardner (a principal of CVG), continued meeting weekly after the August 20 meeting, without my knowledge.”

A few weeks later, ConEd and three other companies were selected as finalists for the contract. On June 16, 2017, ConEd won an “award to negotiate” with the university, a process that’s ongoing.

Eakin acknowledges that his failed attempt to buy the mill and his pursuit of legal action could raise questions about his credibility and motives for implicating Ward. Asked about that, Eakin said: “All I can say is, here are the facts. It’s your job to investigate.”

Strosser and Edson were contacted last week by the newspaper for comments, but neither responded.

QUESTIONS OF INFLUENCE

Jake Ward’s role in the bid process has been in dispute since early February, when the newspaper published a story based on recordings of conference calls related to the bid strategy. Participants included ConEd representatives, CVG principals, consultants and investors. The discussions also involved senior management at Sewall.

On one call, Richardson refers to a meeting he and others had with Ward. Richardson said Ward provided ConEd’s team with insight into how the competition was going to be scored, and also indicated that the university president and chancellor would make the final decision.

Richardson said of Ward: “And he also turned to us and said, essentially, ‘This is yours to lose. And it’s been set up for you to do well.’ ”

Ward wasn’t on any of the calls and university officials dispute the credibility of what Richardson said. The board’s audit committee then looked into the charges before releasing a resolution on Feb. 9 that determined Ward did not provide assistance to any bidder responding to the request for proposal.

Since then, the newspaper has reviewed a second recording, from March 2017, in which Ward was referenced regarding another meeting related to the bid.

On that call, participants mention a pending meeting between the ConEd team, Ward and the university. Participants on the call included John Richardson, Ward Strosser from ConEd and Cathy Renault, owner of Innovation Policyworks in Brunswick. Renault was working as a consultant to ConEd to help prepare the submission for the university’s energy contract.

At one point, participants were discussing a competitor in the bid process, Ameresco Inc., a renewable and energy efficiency company based in Framingham, Massachusetts. Ameresco, which has an office in Portland, wound up in third place, behind Honeywell International.

The discussion centered on the influence of George Sakellaris, Ameresco’s founder, president and chief executive. Sakellaris has an engineering degree from UMaine and a history of donating money to the school.

Strosser wondered whether Sakellaris had “pull” with the university that might give Ameresco an edge in the competition.

“I’m sure he’s exercising his muscle there,” Strosser said.

Renault recounted what she knew about the ups and downs of his donation history and indicated that his influence may have fluctuated over time.

Then Renault said: “John, I think it will be interesting if you get to talk to some of the insiders, to see …”

Richardson replied: “We’re actually going to meet on Friday with Hemant and a number of other folks. With Jake and Habib and others. So we’re trying to get as much intel as we can there.”

Strosser added: “That’s key. That’s key. Because that’s something I’m nervous about.”

Hemant Pendse heads the school’s chemical engineering department, as well as the Forest Bioproducts Research Institute inside the Old Town mill. Habib Dagher is executive director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the university.

Contacted earlier this winter by the newspaper, Renault said she didn’t remember being on a conference call with Richardson and that she never discussed the energy contract with Ward. She then noted that she had signed a nondisclosure agreement with ConEd and couldn’t discuss the project.

Neither Renault nor Richardson responded to requests for comment about the latest recording.

Asked last week about this meeting, Jim Thelen, the university system’s general counsel, confirmed that it was held at the forest research lab in the mill. According to Thelen, Pendse attended. Ward participated by phone. Richardson was not there, but Steve Von Vogt, a business consultant working with Richardson and CVG, did attend. Dagher had no involvement.

“The meeting did not relate to the UMaine energy RFP or ConEd,” Thelen said. “The point was to discuss opportunities to partner with UMaine’s (research lab) on forest bioproducts research and technology.”

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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