Lobbyist report leads LePage to halt talking with three papers

Robert F. Bukaty | BDN

Gov. LePage now says that no one in the administration should talk with reporters from the three papers of Maine Today Media — the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel.

LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, informed a Press Herald reporter of the new policy following a request for the governor’s public events calendar. Bennett would not provide the calendar, a public document, and said the administration would no longer participate in stories reported by the three newspapers. [Source]

It was just a few weeks ago that LePage barred administration officials from testifying to the Appropriations Committee, as it was working on the budget. He said that he’d do all the testifying for them.

But at least then administration officials could talk to legislators by phone and answer emails. Now they are barred from talking to reporters from the three papers and he won’t talk to them either.

This is a rather unusual decision. So how does the administration explain itself?

Well, according to the publication of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, there are multiple reasons, but the “straw that broke the camel’s back” “was Colin Woodard’s recent series on Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Patricia Aho.”

As I discussed in “Behind closed doors, lobbyists set the rules for LePage administration,” a seven-month probe by Colin Woodard found that a lobbyist hired to oppose environmental laws is now heading Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and has been thwarting those same laws.

This same lobbyist has reassigned experts who were trying to carry out the laws. One DEP staffer won damages in court for retaliation.

More than this is covered in the remarkable “The Lobbyist in the Henhouse” series by Woodard and the whole thing is worth reading.

What does all this mean?

1. Well, Gov. LePage has never been a fan of newspapers. More than once he’s said that buying a paper is like paying someone to lie to you.

2. At the same time, the administration is paying attention to the media and devoting resources to this project.

As the governor’s spokesperson told the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s publication, “We’ve been monitoring this for a long time.”

They track where positive and negative stories are put in newspapers. They pay special attention to whether articles about the governor mention Rep. Pingree’s husband’s ownership share in the Maine Today papers.

3. Yet the administration has restricted coverage of many events, including some that are rather positive. As reporter Steve Mistler notes in the Press-Herald:

The communications staff has given limited information about the governor’s public events schedule since he took office. In May, Bennett removed reporters from a ceremonial signing of a bill that requires public school personnel to receive training in suicide prevention and awareness. The bill received unanimous support in the Legislature and LePage pledged $44,000 from his contingency account to fund the effort.

Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay, the bill’s lead sponsor, told the Press Herald that he was surprised that the governor’s staff didn’t want press in the room. Gilbert also noted that LePage complained during the ceremony that the press wouldn’t cover the event because it was a positive news story.

4. But it was Woodard’s series that bothered the governor enough to break ties.

Showing what has been happening behind closed doors often bothers chief executives. They want privacy for their administrations.

But that goes against our democracy’s commitment to transparency whenever possible. LePage himself pledged during his campaign to have the most transparent administration in Maine’s history.

Investigative reporter Woodard, using interviews and internal documents, cracked the door open.

Granted, the governor has a different view of what happened when no one was watching government, but he isn’t willing to answer questions about it in public.

(When was the last time LePage held a press conference?)

Instead, the administration is taking the very unusual step of cutting communication with these papers.

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A final note on the politics of this step:

On the one hand, trashing the media will likely play well with elements of LePage’s base. As such, it’s another element of a strategy he’ll probably pursue through the 2014 election to ensure his base turns out to vote for him.

However, a leader who looks unwilling to stand and argue his point, preferring to limit interaction, doesn’t look confident. And that does not exactly attract support. Instead, it raises questions of temperament that may turn off some supporters and others who might have been.

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.