AUGUSTA — Philip Congdon, who Wednesday abruptly resigned his post as the state's head of economic development, says the offensive comments that apparently cost him his job were not reported accurately and taken out of context.
Congdon stepped down as the commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development following widespread complaints that the Round Pond resident disparaged Aroostook County residents and minorities during speaking engagements held there earlier this month.
Congdon's remarks at a Chamber of Commerce event in Caribou and another meeting in Presque Isle came during a tour on April 1, where he reportedly told attendees that Aroostook County residents needed "to get off the reservation" and told another gathering about the negative impact of the nation's affirmative action programs on the educational system.
But Congdon, 69, disputed those statements in a phone conversation Thursday, saying they were taken out of context and misinterpreted.
"Would I be so brain dead to stand up there in front of an audience and a microphone and say those kinds of things?" he asked.
Congdon said his reported remark about affirmative action "was totally taken out of context."
He declined to repeat the statement, saying only that he made it during a "private conversation."
"Unfortunately, I thought I was talking to people who were sufficiently intelligent enough to understand my real meaning," he said. "I was mistaken."
Congdon said his reported "reservation" comment was "absolutely untrue."
He noted the absence of media at the events.
"I had hoped there would be at least one camera there," he said. "I was defenseless."
Several individuals who attended the events had a different view of Congdon's remarks. Tim Crowley, the president of Northern Maine Community College, told the Sun Journal he attended one of the events.
While Crowley declined to repeat the remarks, he said "there were some things that transpired that raised some concerns."
Jenny Coon, the executive director of the Caribou Chamber of Commerce, told Maine Public Broadcasting Network that attendees were shocked by Congdon's comments during an awards dinner. Coon told the network that Congdon had several controversial theories about why Maine's economy was in a slump.
"And also we're poor parents, that was another reason why things are the way they are today is because we're poor parents," Coon told the station.
Ken Murchison, with Northern Maine Development Commission, was also at the event. Murchison told the Kennebec Journal, "He (Congdon) growled at us for 45 minutes and said things like 'Get off the reservation.' "
Such accounts eventually made their way to state Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who detailed the remarks in a letter to Gov. Paul LePage.
Martin and the Governor's Office have declined to turn over the letter, saying the document relates to a personnel matter. The Sun Journal on Thursday requested the document through a Freedom of Access Act request. Under the Labor Relations Act, "If disciplinary action is taken, the final written decision relating to that action is no longer confidential after the decision is completed if it imposes or upholds discipline."
Under FOAA law, the administration has five business days to respond to the request.
Confronted by reporters Thursday, LePage had little to say about Congdon's resignation. When asked why he refused to comment on a significant change to his cabinet, LePage said, "Let me put it this way, my actions should speak for themselves."
He added, "We had a personnel issue, we dealt with it. Let's move on."
The governor was also asked if he felt Congdon had been sufficiently vetted for the position.
"Absolutely," LePage said. "He was vetted. Believe me, he was vetted."
Congdon is a retired engineer for Texas Instruments and former member of the Maine Constitutionalists, a tea party organization in Waldoboro. LePage was introduced to Congdon during an event there.
On Thursday, Congdon disputed that characterization of his remarks. He also indicated that he wasn't asked to resign by LePage.
Asked why he would leave voluntarily if his reported comments were inaccurate, he said, "I'm a supporter of what the governor is trying to do. If what I'm doing is not helping the cause, then I'll get out of the way."
He later added, "It's very difficult to battle people with he-said, she-said."
Congdon also denied speculation that he was reluctant to leave his office at the Burton Cross building Wednesday. While nobody would speak on the record, there were widespread rumors that Congdon didn't go quietly.
Several spotted Congdon making his way through the Capitol grounds hours after his resignation.
Capitol Police Chief Russell Gauvin confirmed that Congdon was still on the grounds several hours after his resignation. Gauvin also confirmed that Congdon was escorted out of the building by Capitol Police, but that such measures are routine for employees leaving their posts.
Gauvin, one of the officers who escorted Congdon, said it was "a non-event," but acknowledged that "some employees were concerned because he was still there so long, especially after how he was let go."
"You could sense a lot of anxiety among the staff," Gauvin said.
Congdon, a concealed weapons permit holder, called "outrageous" anonymous claims that he'd previously brought his gun to work. Guns are currently not allowed on Capitol grounds.
"I've never had a gun on me in Augusta," Congdon said.
LePage has yet to name a replacement candidate for the DECD post.