AUGUSTA — A fired-up Gov. Paul Le-Page said Tuesday that political tensions over U.S. tariffs on Canadian lumber had no role in a decision to divert state-owned logs away from mills owned by a family critical of his position.

LePage told lawmakers they owed him and Maine Forest Service Director Doug Denico apologies for what he said were “totally fictional and outrageous” allegations about potential retribution against the owners of several Maine mills. Responding to a legislative committee’s detailed request for information, LePage accused some lawmakers of waging “an inquisition” against his administration for wood-flow issues that he said were made to address an emergency situation in one mill, not to hurt another.

“Your letter is nothing more than a political witch hunt,” LePage told members of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. “You are making outrageous accusations demanding that members of the executive branch come before you to answer them.”

Lawmakers are seeking clarity on the Maine Bureau of Public Lands’ decision last month to stop shipping timber from state-owned lands to mills owned by the Brochu family. Jason and Chris Brochu publicly criticized the governor last fall for pushing to end trade tariffs on lumber imports from New Brunswick and Quebec – tariffs that LePage says harm the region’s closely entwined forest products industry but that supporters say help level the playing field against Canadian subsidies.

Sen. Tom Saviello, a Wilton Republican who has often clashed with LePage, said it was “a terrible juxtaposition” that the shipments stopped following the Brochus’ criticism and after the governor met with Canadian and Trump administration officials on the tariffs.

“We have not accused anybody of breaking the law,” Saviello said in opening Tuesday’s tension-filled meeting. “We just want the information so we can make a better decision about whether we need to reform legislation or not.”

LePage refuted any connection. Wood was shifted from the Brochus’ Moose River Lumber and Pleasant River Lumber mills, LePage said, because the Stratton Lumber mill – which is owned by a Canadian company – was facing a supply emergency after a piece of logging equipment was damaged by a fire.

“Folks, I have had zero involvement,” LePage said. “I have bigger fish to fry than to worry about what wood goes to any one mill.”

Instead, LePage said “wood is routed where it is needed” and that his administration would work with the Moose River and Pleasant River mills before the stoppage had long-term effects.

TIES TO FOREST INDUSTRY IN CANADA

It’s no secret that LePage has close ties to the forest products industry in neighboring Canadian provinces, and some say the relationship is too cozy.

The governor lived in New Brunswick and worked for lumber companies north of the border after college. He has strongly criticized the Trump administration’s decision to impose tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber because of those ties – and two-directional commerce – between Maine and neighboring provinces. Canadian companies such as New Brunswick-based Irving Woodlands own land as well as mills in this state, and Maine mills purchase Canadian wood even as some other Maine landowners ship raw wood to mills across the border.

The dispute between LePage and the Brochus has been brewing for months.

Last September, LePage said in his weekly radio address that “corporate greed from a coalition of big lumber companies” had sent wood prices “skyrocketing” at a time when families affected by hurricanes Irma and Harvey needed to rebuild. LePage used the radio address to once again call for an end to tariffs on softwood imports from neighboring New Brunswick, noting that Maine’s “cross-border commerce is intertwined with our Canadian neighbors.”

“Our lumber trade flows back and forth between Maine, Quebec and New Brunswick,” LePage said. “Some Maine companies own mills and forestland on both sides of the border. We are already seeing job losses as companies try to avoid the tariffs.”

ACTING ‘OUT OF PERSONAL GREED’

Those comments – and, in particular, his assertion of “corporate greed” within the U.S. lumber industry – prompted the Brochus to write in response that LePage was pushing “a Canada-first trade policy, risking the jobs of hundreds of thousands of American workers.”

“The U.S. government has been working to protect the industry from Canada’s abuses and level the playing field,” Jason and Chris Brochu wrote in an op-ed published in the Bangor Daily News. “Unfortunately, the governor is not on the same page and appears unconcerned with the sawmills in Maine and the good American jobs that are impacted by unfair trade practices.”

LePage then responded by accusing the Brochus of “hiding behind a national coalition of corporations,” while adding that the brothers “are free to act out of personal greed and self-interest.”

So when shipments of state-owned logs to the Moose River and Pleasant River mills were halted in February, some people questioned whether the stoppage was tied to the tariffs dispute. Those questions further inflamed the long-standing tensions between the Legislature and the governor – tensions that were on full display Tuesday as LePage repeatedly interrupted lawmakers’ questions and bluntly told the committee that some members were dishonest.

The committee had sent the LePage administration 26 questions about the handling of wood cut on state-owned lands, the decision to stop shipments to the Brochu mills, and exports of state-owned wood to Canadian mills. LePage said he was reviewing the answers to those questions and would deliver them to the committee at a later date.

LIMITED ACCESS TO AGENCY CHIEFS

Committee co-chairman Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, read a March 9 email from a LePage senior policy adviser that the administration would have answers by Tuesday’s meeting. But the governor, in turn, accused lawmakers of violating his administration’s “protocol” that all requests for information flow through his office. That prompted another terse exchange between LePage and Rep. Roland “Danny” Martin, D-Sinclair, who served as Gov. John Baldacci’s commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Martin, who also served three terms in the Legislature before joining the Baldacci administration, said LePage is the only governor he is aware of “that does not allow your commissioners or your directors to cooperate with oversight committees.”

“We could have avoided your appearance here and the discussion this afternoon had you simply allowed or authorized either the commissioner or director to respond to our simple questions,” Martin said.

Tuesday’s hearing won’t be the end of the matter.

The committee voted to request that the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability review the questions raised by the decision to stop supplying wood to the Moose River and Pleasant River mills. As the Legislature’s watchdog agency, OPEGA has the authority to subpoena administration officials and staffers to answer questions.

LePage said that unlike traditional legislative committees, those testifying before OPEGA will be doing so under oath.

“I don’t trust you,” he told lawmakers.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH