A political dust-up over lumber is headed to the state’s watchdog agency.

Members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted Friday to ask the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to look into suggestions that the LePage administration may be playing favorites with timber harvested on state-owned lands.

Gov. Paul LePage, meanwhile, said he strongly supports an independent OPEGA investigation into what he dismisses as “unfounded claims” against his administration by members of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.

“The committee has insinuated that something illegal has occurred, so I would like the Government Oversight Committee to step in, investigate and set the record straight,” LePage wrote in a letter Friday to committee leaders.

The issue centers on LePage’s outspoken support for ending U.S. tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber and his administration’s dealings with mill owners critical of his stance.

In February, the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands diverted wood away from the Moose River Lumber and Pleasant River Lumber mills owned by Jason and Chris Brochu. The diversion took place several months after the Brochus publicly accused LePage of pursuing a “Canada-first” policy at the expense of Maine’s lumber mills as he urged President Trump to end new tariffs on lumber from Quebec and New Brunswick.

During a tension-filled meeting on Tuesday, LePage accused members of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee of engaging in a “witch hunt.” LePage said a logging equipment fire was causing an emergency shortage of wood supply at the Canadian-owned Stratton mill, prompting the temporary diversion from the Brochus’ mills.

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

But the timing of the diversion invited suggestions of retaliation against the Brochus. The issue is also highlighting long-standing frustrations between LePage and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who view his administration as uncooperative and unresponsive to questions.

Sen. Tom Saviello, a Wilton Republican and former forester who has repeatedly clashed with LePage over the years, said LePage will likely never allow state forestry officials to testify to the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. That’s because LePage has a policy of requiring all legislative questions to be routed through his office and often declines lawmakers’ requests to have administration officials appear before committees.

OPEGA, on the other hand, can compel departments to produce documents or provide witnesses through subpoenas. Government Oversight Committee members also cited concerns about the LePage administration’s transparency later Friday when directing OPEGA to review the Maine Department of Labor’s rocky roll-out of a new unemployment claims system.

On the lumber issue, Saviello said it was unclear what happened with the wood because the administration has yet to answer the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee’s questions.

“I could not find that any laws were violated. We looked hard,” said Saviello, who sits on both committees. “What I could find was that a bad business decision was made, which was picking winners and losers with our public wood, which I don’t think is appropriate.”

In his letter to the Government Oversight Committee, LePage also singled out Saviello and Sen. Paul Davis, a Sangerville Republican who also serves on both committees, including as co-chairman of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.

“Since Senator Saviello and Senator Davis have information that is critical to refuting the claims by the committee, they clearly have a conflict of interest in this matter,” LePage wrote. “Therefore, I ask that these senators recuse themselves from any deliberations of the committee about this issue. However, both Senators Saviello and Davis should make themselves available for questioning under oath in any Government Oversight Committee investigation of this matter.”

Sen. Roger Katz, an Augusta Republican who co-chairs the Government Oversight Committee, appeared to reject that suggestion, however.

“The members of this committee will not be under oath,” Katz said. “That is confusing what our role is.”

 

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