February 13, 2011

MIKE TIPPING: LePage’s promise of transparency broken into smoke and mirrors

“Every Maine citizen has a right to know what government is up to,” reads candidate Paul LePage’s campaign website. “He will fight for stronger laws to protect and expand Maine citizens’ right to access information from state and local government. When Paul is Governor, open government will be a reality, not a talking point.”

“The LePage administration will have the most transparent transition process in Maine history,” declared Gov.-elect LePage during a press conference shortly after he won the election.

Now that LePage is governor, however, things have changed.

Members of his administration seem to be doing everything they can to hide that corporations and their lobbyists played a big role in his transition, and these interests have been granted the power to shape administration policy and change Maine law.

This influence and deception has been most apparent in the controversy surrounding LePage’s proposals to roll back decades of environmental and public health protections.

“Most of the proposals I’ve developed come directly from the business owners and managers who have attended the red tape workshops that have been held throughout the state,” said LePage in a radio address in January.

When asked about which businesses made which proposals, however, the administration has hedged or been downright dishonest.

LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt told Maine Public Radio that the Maine Grocers Association requested the repeal of the Kid-Safe Products Act, a law that seeks to keep children from being exposed to toxic chemicals in consumer products.

The grocers association denied it was behind the proposal.

When asked by the Portland Phoenix which Maine company had requested the repeal of a law that ensures culverts are large enough to allow brook trout and other fish species to navigate Maine’s rivers and streams, Demeritt claimed it was the Maine Municipal Association.

The MMA denied it had made such a request.

Who was actually behind these and other proposals still isn’t clear, but an important clue was found at the bottom of the paper the proposals were printed on — a tracking number similar to those used by lobbying firm Preti Flaherty.

It was revealed the document was written by LePage’s transition co-chairwoman Ann Robinson, a partner at Preti Flaherty. Robinson and her associates have reported taking more than $100,000 from pharmaceutical companies and their lobby group (PhRMA) to influence legislation in Augusta, including being paid to work against the Kid-Safe Products Act.

Robinson and her firm also received just under $10,000 over two months in 2008 from the Toy Industry Association Inc. to attempt to stop the act from being written into law.

(Disclosure: I work for the Maine People’s Alliance, which advocated for passage of the Kid-Safe Products Act before the Legislature in 2008.)

Robinson remains head of Preti Flaherty’s lobbying operation and, according to Demeritt, also remains LePage’s chief adviser on regulatory reform.

LePage also appointed Gloria Pinza of the Pierce Atwood lobbying firm to his transition team, and is considering nominating another of the firm’s lobbyists, Patricia Aho, to a position in the Department of Environmental Protection.

Aho and Pierce Atwood represented the American Chemistry Council, another organization that fought against the Kid-Safe Products Act and other environmental and public health legislation.

Some corporations interested in eliminating Maine’s environmental and health regulations also gave generously to help get LePage elected and to pay for his transition expenses. The drug industry alone gave $760,000 to a PAC supporting his campaign.

It seems likely, based on this web of dishonesty, money and influence, that many of the changes LePage has proposed came not from Maine businesses, but from out-of-state corporations.

If the LePage administration has its way, however, we may never know for sure. When the Conservation Law Foundation asked for the documents showing how the rollback proposals came together under Maine’s Freedom of Access law, it met with a brick wall.

The administration agreed to hand over documents from after the inauguration, but refused to divulge papers and correspondence written during the transition, even though they’re now in the possession of members of the administration and are being used to shape public policy.

So much for transparency and the right of Maine citizens to “know what their government is up to.”

Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes the Tipping Point blog on Maine politics at DownEast.com, his own blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine People’s Resource Center. He’s @miketipping on Twitter.

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