Norm Olsen made a number of damning accusations on his way out the door last week.
One of his more troubling accusations piqued my curiosity:
“As a commissioner of the state of Maine, I had to wait six full weeks, from early May to late June, to get a meeting with the governor on time-critical issues of resource management worth tens of millions of dollars to the state.”
This seemed incredible to me, if true. Every administration handles members of their cabinet differently, but for any commissioner to be in such need to meet with the governor and not have access would be mismanagement of the highest order. Similar things came to mind reading the rest of his statement, but this particular part began to gnaw at me. Something just didn’t feel right about it.
So, I decided to see if I could find out just how true that statement was. After all, this is state government we are talking about here, and it isn’t exactly hard to find out if high level government officials meet with each other when there are written records kept for just about everything.
I contacted the governor’s office, and requested any materials the staff had relating to meetings that Commissioner Olsen had with Gov. Paul LePage.
What they gave me should raise doubts about Olsen’s entire account.
The first set of documents were considered “planning memos” of sorts — notifications which indicate a meeting has been scheduled, the subject of said meeting, and the required participants. Here are the highlights from the critical months of May and June:
May 3: LePage, Olsen, Col. Joe Fessenden, Attorney General William Schneider, Carlisle McLean (senior natural resources policy advisor). Brief the governor for May 9 meeting with the Maine Lobstermen’s Heritage Association. Discussed MLHA’s complaints about lobster fishing license restrictions.
May 4: LePage, Olsen, McLean. Meeting at request of the governor to discuss fishermen’s concerns about shrimp fishery, lobster limited entry, scallop limited entry and drag-caught lobsters.
May 9: LePage, representative of MLHA, Olsen, McLean, Rod Carr, Jon Doyle. Discussed changing rules to allow small businessmen to fish beyond current restrictions. LePage voiced support for the change, and wanted to explore legislative remedies.
May 17: LePage, Olsen. Subject was Maine Lobster Promotion Council’s input into the issue.
May 20: LePage tour of the DMR Boothbay Harbor lab with Olsen.
June 2: LePage, Olsen, McLean, John Butera, James Odlin. Subject was groundfish industry.
June 20: LePage, Olsen, John McGough, McLean, Jim Wilson. Meeting at request of the governor to discuss lobster zones.
June 27: LePage, Olsen, McLean regarding seaweed harvesting and groundfish industry.
June 29: LePage, Olsen. Subject was shrimp fishery management options, DMR agency-wide review and the Maine Lobster Promotion Council.
Does this look like a commissioner with an access problem to you?
Olsen’s big claim was that he simply could not get a meeting with the governor, and — indeed — that LePage and his senior staff “cut him off” for six weeks from May to June. The records at the governor’s office tell an altogether different story, with Olsen meeting with the governor nine times in those two months.
In addition to the listed meetings here, there were four separate cabinet meetings in those two months. That makes 13 — thirteen — separate opportunities for Olsen to meet and talk with the governor about his areas of concern. And that doesn’t include any phone calls, emails, or other modes of communication not documented here.
To follow up on this, I also asked the administration for the frequency of meetings with other commissioners in the same area of policy.
In that same window of time Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley met with the governor six times, Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb five times, and IF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock once.
Olsen’s statement is an outright fabrication, and it wasn’t the only one.
Among the documents obtained from the governor’s office is a handwritten note from LePage placed on a series of letters from Maine fishermen who were upset by statements made by Olsen at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum. The note stated:
This letter came to me from concerned fishermen. Would you review the three concerns and provide with talking points, so I may answer the concerns from the administration standpoint. If you prefer to discuss let me know.
Note that the governor offered to discuss the matter personally with Olsen — hardly sounds like somebody being shut out.
This one note from the governor contradicts another of Olsen’s statements, namely this one:
"Yet more disturbing, after that meeting in late June, the governor sent his chief of staff and his chief of boards and commissions to threaten me with firing if I would not do whatever necessary to stop the complaints reaching him from special interest groups. I was not allowed to know the source of the complaints, or their content, but I was to back off."
The note, and the letter it was attached to, make it very clear who was complaining about Olsen. It was a group of fishermen who all attached their names very publicly by signing a letter that they sent to the governor’s office. Many of the complainants not only signed their name, but listed their license number, how many years they had been fishing, and groups they belonged to.
In addition, their complaints are very clear, even spelled out in bullet point format for him. The governor not only told Olsen who was complaining and what they were complaining about, he asked for talking points.
For those not familiar with the workings of public policy, when the man at the top is asking for talking points about something like this, he is asking for what the administration should say publicly (from the governor or his communications staff) about the issue.
This suggests that the governor was not in fact backing off a controversial policy due to pressure, but was attempting to get an official viewpoint that could be relayed with one voice so members of the government don’t contradict each other.
The more I learn about Olsen’s behavior, the more dubious his claims become.
It seems much more likely to me that Olsen was simply uninterested in doing the political work necessary to implement his desired changes, angered everyone around him and isolated himself. LePage appears to have been more than open to meeting with him, more than open to discussing the policy changes, and quite professional in how he handled most of this affair.
In contrast, when Olsen doesn’t get his way, much like when he left the State Department, he reacts rather poorly.
Matthew Gagnon is a Republican strategist who has served as director of New Media Communications for Sen. Susan Collins and deputy director of Digital Strategy at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. This column first appeared on PineTreePolitics.com