AUGUSTA — As promised, Gov. Paul LePage has introduced a late bill that will amend conflict-of-interest rules to ensure that individuals with a development background can serve on the state’s citizen environmental board.
The bill could also conceivably allow LePage’s recently resigned commissioner of environmental protection to return to his post.
Brown stepped down as commissioner of the DEP last month following a ruling by Attorney General William Schneider that showed the former CEO of Main-Land Development was likely in violation of the conflict-of-interest provision in the Clean Water Act.
LePage’s bill, LD 1575, would align the provision with federal law, potentially paving the way for Brown to return to the DEP post. However, the governor has insisted that he won’t reappoint Brown, who has since been reassigned to the State Planning Office.
Last month the governor left the door open for Brown’s return when he told reporters that he planned to introduce the legislation this session and that reappointing Brown was under consideration.
Brown, who was at the State House briefly Wednesday, declined to say whether he was still interested in the DEP post.
“As of right now, my job is the director of the State Planning Office,” Brown said.
Assurances that Brown wouldn’t be reappointed appear to have convinced two members of Democratic leadership — Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, and House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono — to sign on as co-sponsors of LePage’s bill.
Democrats said they would withdraw from the legislation if the governor reneged on his promise not to reappoint Brown.
Despite LePage’s assurances, Steve Hinchman, the attorney for the Androscoggin River Alliance, said the governor’s bill is an “extremely bad idea” because it could open the door for someone with a conflict to serve as DEP chief.
Hinchman’s group was the first to point out Brown’s conflict and initiate an investigation by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Hinchman said Maine’s law largely mirrors federal law and that changes could create the government bureaucracy LePage is seeking to eliminate.
Hinchman said Maine’s integrated permitting system allows applicants to file state and federal permits with one application. If Maine simply adopted federal law, he said, the only way to effectively insulate a conflicted DEP commissioner would be to require separate permit proceedings and separate decision-makers.
The bill would attempt to do this by assigning a staff member to sign Clean Water Act permits.
“To meet the intent of the law, both the ultimate decision-maker and the staff that work on federal Clean Water Act permits must be wholly independent,” Hinchman said. “Essentially, you would need a second commissioner with full day-to-day authority over staff that review federal permits.”
Hinchman also asked why the state would lower its standards for conflict of interest.
“I don’t know anyone who thinks that conflict of interest makes for better decision-making,” he said. “Instead, it generally leads to bad government and unequal treatment, particularly among competing businesses.”
Communications staff for Rep. Cain said Democratic leaders signed onto the bill hoping to reach a bipartisan compromise.
Earlier this year, Democrats generated significant resistance to Brown’s appointment even before Hinchman’s group identified the Clean Water Act conflict provision. Several lawmakers said appointing Brown was like “a fox guarding the henhouse” and questioned whether Brown could sufficiently divorce his business interests at Main-Land from his state duties.
Democrats asked the Attorney General’s Office to weigh in on the matter after the LePage administration declined to do so.
In a letter dated April 27, the attorney general notified Brown of the potential conflict, saying, “In the absence of new information, it appears you are unqualified to serve as commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection under Maine law.”
Brown said last month he was unsure whether he would return to Main-Land, which he put up for sale when he took the DEP post. He said one of the reasons he resigned from the DEP post was because the company’s financial data would be subject to Freedom of Access laws through the EPA investigation.
Brown said the disclosure could jeopardize the sale of Main-Land.
Immediately after Brown was reassigned, LePage indicated he was determined to amend Maine law, which he described as “so inflexible that it can be read to prevent good people from serving.”