Group asks AG to probe official of First Wind

Posted May 06, 2010, at 11:16 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 08, 2010, at 6:01 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A citizens’ group has asked Maine’s Attorney General to investigate former Public Utilities Commission Chairman Kurt Adams after revelations that he accepted a grant of “equity units” in a wind power company while still on the state’s payroll.

Adams left the commission in May 2008 to go to work as senior vice president for First Wind and said the equity units “had no value at all” and thus should not trigger state conflict of interest or improper gift laws.

The two co-chairs of the Citizens Task Force on Wind Power, Steve Thurston, a part-time resident of Roxbury, and Monique Aniel of Mexico, wrote the letter to Mills requesting the investigation. When the grant of equity shares to Adams was revealed, Thurston said he felt he had to act. “This is troubling to me,” he said. “Somebody needs to get to the bottom of this, these issues need to be investigated.”

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Janet Mills was noncommittal when asked whether the AG’s office is investigating Adams.

Kate Simmons at first said her office does not comment on current investigations. Asked, “There is no investigation yet?” Simmons replied, “How do you know?”

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting learned this week that the revelations about Adams have prompted First Wind to review its hiring of Adams. A spokesman for the energy company, John Lamontagne, said, “We are confident the review will conclude that the company and Mr. Adams acted properly.”

A message left for Adams on Thursday was not returned. An e-mail to First Wind requesting comment from Adams drew a response from the company’s spokesman.

“Kurt is unavailable for comment,” responded Lamontagne.

An earlier story by the Center reported that Adams received 1.2 million units of equity while still at the commission. First Wind has not put a value on the equity units in its Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The company said the units of equity are not the same as stock options.

A recent First Wind filing with the federal SEC for 2009 shows Adams’ $1.3 million compensation included $315,000 in salary, $658,000 in stock awards, $29,000 of “other” compensation and $315,000 in “nonequity incentives.”

First Wind constructs, operates and owns wind turbines across the country, including farms at Mars Hill and at Stetson Mountain. Two other projects are in the works for Maine in Oakfield and Rollins Mountain in Lincoln.

Adams said in a previous interview that at the time they were awarded to him, the equity units — which he called “stock” in an interview with the Center — had “no value at all” and therefore shouldn’t fall under any state laws that bar improper gifts to public officials.

Under state law it is a criminal violation if a “public servant … solicits, accepts or agrees to accept any pecuniary benefit from a person if the public servant knows or reasonably should know that the purpose of the donor in making the gift is to influence the public servant in the performance of the public servant’s official duties or vote, or is intended as a reward for action on the part of the public servant.”

Another development in the case came to light when the Center filed a Freedom of Access Act request for PUC records related to Adams’ dealings with wind power companies.

Those records appear to contradict Adams’ earlier statements about when he recused himself from matters concerning First Wind.

In an April interview, Adams told the Center that he had only negotiated with First Wind for a short time before he signed a contract with them in 2008. Adams told the Center that to ensure no conflicts occurred, “when I was at the PUC, I recused myself from anything related to First Wind from when I accepted employment to when I left.”

But there’s confusion about when Adams signed that contract: Despite the fact that a First Wind filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission declared he had signed the contract in May 2008, both Adams and First Wind attorney Paul Wilson say that he signed the contract in April 2008. Wilson attributed the confusion to a “clerical error.”

The confusion continues: According to the documents recently obtained by the Center, Adams actually began recusing himself from First Wind-related issues in December 2007. During Adams’ tenure as PUC chairman, the agency took what veteran Washington, D.C., utilities attorney Greg Williams called an “unusual” intervention with federal regulators to help out First Wind’s Stetson Mountain wind farm.

Stetson had been excluded by the regional transmission authority from a potentially lucrative power auction because of problems with transmission of its power, and the commission ultimately lodged a protest of that exclusion.

The PUC records obtained under the Center’s request regarding that intervention show that staff and commissioners were discussing the issue in December 2007, more than four months before Adams said he signed a contract with First Wind and first recused himself.

In an e-mail dated Dec. 12, 2007, from Kurt Adams to staff attorney Lisa Fink — cc’d to commissioners Sharon Reishus and Vendean Vafiades — whose subject line is “RE: Stetson Wind — FCM letter from ISO” Adams wrote:

“I am aware of a potential conflict that I have with this matter. It just popped up. Can you take me out of the loop on this for now?

Thanks,

K”

During a Dec. 17, 2007, commission meeting, Adams recused himself from discussion about item number 14 on the agenda, which was a discussion of the Stetson Wind case — and left the room. The audio recording of the meeting was provided to the Center.

“Now the record can reflect I’m leaving the bench,” Adams said in the recording. An unidentified female voice in the background of the digital recording said, “He says he’s got some kind of potential conflict.”

In neither of the two instances did Adams refer specifically to the nature of the conflict.

PUC attorney Joanne Steneck said there is no written record of why Adams recused himself in the First Wind-related matters in December 2007.

The task force, whose leaders filed the request for an investigation, is an informal coalition of local groups, many of which are fighting wind power developments. Co-chair Thurston’s great-grandfather built a camp on Roxbury Pond in 1925 that’s still owned by his family and he and others around the pond are battling a proposal from a company led by former Gov. Angus King to put turbines on the ridge surrounding the pond.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism organization based in Hallowell. It may be reached at mainecenter@gmail.com. The website is pinetreewatchdog.org.

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