Behind closed doors, lobbyists set the rules for LePage administration

What was going on in Maine government when no one was watching?

You can see legislators take votes or hear the governor make a speech, but many other actions aren’t easily seen. Votes and vetoes and new laws get nearly all the attention, but they shouldn’t.

As they say the devil is in the details. With laws, the reality is in the regulations.

Agencies have discretion in how they carry out laws. Top officials may shape the pace and content of rules and actions.

With the LePage administration in its third year, we’re now peeking behind closed doors.

Sometimes the person once hired to oppose certain laws became their regulator.

Gov. Paul LePage put Patricia Aho, a former lobbyist for chemical companies, in charge of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. One result is that children and firefighters continue to face exposure to chemicals causing cancer and developmental problems.

Even more, internal processes demonstrate a culture of intimidation.

A seven month probe by investigative reporter Colin Woodard found that “department staff is under pressure not to vigorously implement or enforce certain laws opposed by the commissioner’s former lobbying clients.”

Aho was not just employed by the lobbying firm that represented chemical companies. She personally lobbied to try to prevent the passage of Maine’s Kids Safe Products law.

After joining the LePage administration, Aho moved decision-making away from those with technical expertise.

In March 2011, expert Andrea Lani, who had worked at the DEP since 1999, testified to the Maine Legislature about the negative effects of bisphenol-A, also known as BPA.

(This was the compound LePage joked about, saying, “The only thing that I’ve heard is if you take a plastic bottle and put it in the microwave and you heat it up, it gives off a chemical similar to estrogen. So the worst case is some women may have little beards.”)

Lani found herself reassigned to a position far below her level of knowledge, compiling responses to public records requests. She was investigated by the DEP to see if she had used state resources when developing her testimony.

Taxpayers shelled out when Lani won $65,000 in damages for retaliation. But she remains in a clerical position as someone with less expertise runs the Kids Safe Products program.

In another case, Aho, working on behalf of Honeywell, had lobbied against a bill designed to keep mercury from thermostats out of the waste stream. As DEP commissioner, she was responsible for carrying out the recycling law, which had been passed unanimously and signed by former Gov. John Baldacci. But the report done under Aho’s leadership involved consultations solely with industry sources and called for ending the program.

Again there was intimidation. Records show Aho tried to move the official responsible for the program from her job.

This revolving door, in which a lobbyist opposing regulation sets rules in the regulatory agency, is wrong. Maine should strengthen ethics laws to prevent legislators and executive branch officers from quickly moving to the ranks of lobbyists and to block rapid movement of lobbyists into administrative positions.

What happened at the Department of Environmental Protection is similar to LePage’s actions with unemployment insurance appeals hearing officers.

The governor called the judge-like hearing officers to the Blaine House to tell them their decisions were too pro-worker. As internal documents found, some hearing officers felt intimidated.

While LePage claimed he had received hundreds of complaints from businesses, it turns out that 30 of 400 came from employers. Now the federal government is investigating the governor’s actions.

Maine’s regulatory environment was an issue when two 2014 candidates last ran for governor. LePage pledged to slash regulations on business.

Cutler proposed creating an Office of Regulatory Review and Repeal that would “report directly to the governor” regarding proposed and existing regulations. Imagine if that existed now.

Certainly not every regulation is worthwhile. Some shouldn’t exist.

However, research indicates that while the public doesn’t like “regulations,” people strongly support specific rules preventing exposure to toxins, protecting workers and ensuring fair treatment.

Since the reality is in the regulations, it’s essential to limit the place of lobbyists and special interests in government and to not allow any particular governor to gain more power over the rules.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.