Groups question legal fee payments of Plum Creek

Posted Dec. 29, 2009, at 8:22 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Two organizations are calling for an investigation into whether Plum Creek violated any rules or laws by paying the legal fees of groups testifying in support of the company’s Moosehead Lake development plan.

But the staff director of the Land Use Regulation Commission said there are no rules prohibiting such payments or requiring Plum Creek to disclose them to regulators. And the Attorney General’s Office indicated that an investigation is unlikely.

“The office has not been provided with any new information that would warrant an investigation,” said Kate Simmons, spokeswoman with the Attorney General’s Office.

In an open letter to Attorney General Janet Mills released Tuesday, the Native Forest Network and the Forest Ecology Network requested an independent investigation into the payments and whether groups had an obligation to notify LURC about the money.

Both the Native Forest Network and the Forest Ecology Network opposed Plum Creek’s housing and resort concept plan, which LURC approved in September.

“We believe the investigation should include a thorough accounting of the payments Plum Creek made to its supporters, including the timing of these payments, how the money was spent and … whether or not representatives of these groups answered truthfully when questioned on the record about receiving funds from Plum Creek,” the letter reads.

Plum Creek has acknowledged helping cover the legal expenses of several supportive groups, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council and the Somerset County Economic Development Council.

A Plum Creek representative could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

In past media reports, company officials and representatives of some of the organizations said the payments were not in return for favorable testimony before LURC. Instead, the groups had already come out in support of Plum Creek’s plan before any the payments were made.

Plum Creek’s rezoning request for 975 house lots and two large resorts spawned the largest regulatory review in LURC history, involving more than 300 hours of public hearings and workshops plus thousands of public comments.

To win regulatory approval, Plum Creek also negotiated a series of conservation deals that will permanently protect from development more than 400,000 acres in the Moosehead region.

The Forest Ecology Network and two other organizations are appealing LURC’s decision.

LURC director Catherine Carroll said she and other staff never knew that Plum Creek was helping cover the legal expenses of some supporters. Carroll pointed out that there are no rules specifically allowing or prohibiting such payments or requiring disclosure.

“The rules do not address it whatsoever,” Carroll said Tuesday afternoon.

Simmons with the Attorney General’s Office said it had not received the letter from the two organizations or any new information about the payments first detailed in radio and newspaper reports earlier this month.

Emily Posner, a volunteer with the Native Forest Network, said she also would like to see some scrutiny of the estimated $1.7 million that Plum Creek paid to LURC to cover the costs of reviewing its historic application.

Those payments were required under a state law allowing LURC to be reimbursed for the costs of processing “extraordinary” applications. In Plum Creek’s case, the money was used to hire several consultants who assisted with the review and to cover the costs of public hearings, workshops, transcripts, commissioners’ per diem and travel costs related to the case and other expenses.

“We want to make sure this is a fair and balanced decision,” Posner said.

Carroll said the commission has maintained a detailed, itemized accounting of all fees or reimbursements paid by Plum Creek, and that information is available to the public.

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