Ex-PUC chief clears hurdle to joining UMaine System board

Posted Aug. 11, 2010, at 9:24 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Education Committee voted Wednesday to recommend former Public Utilities Commission chairman Kurt Adams to the University of Maine System board of trustees after he responded to criticism raised in several e-mails to committee members questioning his integrity.

“I did see, I believe, some of those letters, but maybe not all of them” he said. “There are two sort of buckets of allegations in the letters.”

Adams said one group of allegations goes to his employer, First Wind, a major energy company that specializes in wind power for the generation of electricity. He declined to respond to those allegations, saying the company had responded in a letter to the panel.

He did respond to the second group of allegations that he used his former position as chairman of the PUC to help First Wind and was in a conflict of interest on some issues while he served on the PUC.

He said he resigned from the PUC because he wanted to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest when Central Maine Power Co. proposed a new power line that literally went next to his house in Yarmouth.

“Even though my lawyer and the attorney general said, ‘You could probably stay on the commission and continue to do your work,’ I did not believe that the appearance of a conflict of interest would go away,” Adams said. “So I chose to leave my job.”

He said he has not been involved in any of the proceedings of the PUC since he left as chairman, including any to do with wind power, let alone First Wind.

He stressed that throughout his career as a lawyer, chief counsel to Gov. John Baldacci and as chairman of the PUC, he has avoided even the appearance of a conflict.

But for one lawmaker, Rep. Edward Finch, D-Fairfield, Adams’ decision to resign over the CMP line proposal was not good enough. He said Adams needed to avoid any appearance of a conflict.

“It’s the old comment about Caesar’s wife must be above reproach,” Finch said. “I am not sure it is enough that there be no conflict. I think it’s also important there be no appearance of possible conflict.”

Finch said he had never voted against a gubernatorial nominee in his eight years in the Legislature. He voted against Adams’ confirmation. He was joined by Sen. Carol Weston, R-Waldo, and Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville. Seven members supported his nomination and three lawmakers were absent.

“To me it was the appearance of impropriety,” Johnson said. “We received an awful lot of correspondence that said that. I did not think it was adequately explained.”

Adams also was questioned about any potential conflict that might happen if he is confirmed to the board of trustees while continuing as an executive of First Wind. The University of Maine is involved in building a pilot wind power project off the Maine coast.

Adams said he does not see a conflict because First Wind is “a terrestrial wind power company” and the university proposal is a pilot project to develop and test new equipment and technologies, not generate power in competition with First Wind or any other power company.

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, co-chairman of the committee, asked Adams why a busy power company executive would want to take the time to serve on the board.

“The University of Maine is a tremendously important institution for our state,” Adams said. “I believe in order for Maine’s economy to keep growing, for young people to get the educational tools that they need to stay here, to thrive here, the university needs people that are willing to roll up their sleeves and get the job done.”

He said the biggest challenge to the university system is to provide a quality education at an affordable price to students. He said that will take a lot of work and problem solving.

Lawmakers also questioned Adams on other issues, including the maintaining of the small, rural campuses as the system faces funding problems. In the one light moment of the hearing, Adams joked he had the solution to restructuring the university system.

“They will all be consolidated into Yarmouth,” he said, drawing laughter from the panel.

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