AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage announced a major shake-up of his administration on Wednesday, including the resignation of his top economic adviser amid allegations of improper comments during a tour of Aroostook County earlier this month.
Barely four months into his term, LePage is faced with filling two additional Cabinet positions after the resignations Wednesday of Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Philip Congdon and Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Darryl Brown.
Brown stepped down as the state’s top environmental official after Attorney General William Schneider said it appeared the commissioner had a conflict of interest due to his ownership of a consulting firm that has extensive dealings with the department.
But it was Congdon’s resignation and the allegations of impropriety surrounding him that had the State House buzzing on Wednesday.
A retired Texas Instruments executive living in Maine, Congdon reportedly offended multiple groups of people on separate occasions during events in Aroostook County earlier this month. According to multiple sources, Congdon made racially insensitive or inflammatory remarks about college students and dismissive comments about the prospects for economic development in The County.
The remarks prompted Rep. John Martin, an Eagle Lake Democrat, to write a letter to the governor expressing strong concerns about his choice to lead the state’s economic development efforts.
“They were racist and putting people down in Aroostook, basically,” said Martin, who estimated he heard from 10 to 12 people offended by Congdon’s remarks.
Officials with the LePage administration acknowledged receiving Martin’s letter, but would not comment on its contents or release the letter itself, calling it a personnel issue.
Aroostook County officials said that Congdon made the comments during a Caribou Chamber of Commerce event in early April and then at a private event at Northern Maine Community College.
Jason Parent, director of development and community relations for Northern Maine Community College, declined to go into detail about what allegedly happened during Congdon’s visit to NMCC. But Parent said college officials believed the governor’s office and the Maine Community College System office should be informed about the statements.
Jenny Coon, interim executive director of the Caribou Chamber of Commerce, confirmed late Wednesday evening that Congdon’s remarks failed to impress the crowd at the Chamber’s annual dinner on April 1.
“The thing was, we were so excited to have the DECD commissioner speaking at our event,” she said. “We were anxious to show him how proud we are of our heritage and our local businesses and our region as a whole, and it went in a whole other direction.”
“Not only that, but this wasn’t just a meeting,” she said. “It was our annual dinner. It was where we recognized our business of the year and our citizen of the year and we handed out other awards. It was a positive event and we were looking for a positive speech from our speaker — and that wasn’t what we got.”
Coon said she was “really taken aback” with the advice Congdon gave Aroostook County potato growers.
“He made a remark along the lines that potato farmers were wasting their potatoes by making french fries, they should be using them instead to make vodka,” she recalled. “It was really off the wall and it didn’t amuse many people, especially in an agricultural community so proud of its heritage.”
Congdon also made a comment about “poor parenting” in The County.
“He made a mistake when he opened up himself to questions, though, because people really gave it back to him,” she said.
After the event, she said people were “shocked.”
“Everyone was speechless,” said Coon. “It didn’t ruin the event, but it just soured it. But we will move on and keep working hard to promote The County.”
She said that she agreed that someone in Congdon’s position “shouldn’t have such a bias and so much negativity.”
Rep. Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou, also heard from two individuals who heard Congdon’s statements, NMCC President Timothy Crowley and Caribou City Manager Steven Buck. Edgecomb later relayed what he heard to LePage himself, although not before trying several times to meet with Congdon.
“I was rather alarmed and concerned because they were very upset about what they heard,” Edgecomb said, adding that both Crowley and Buck “are not people to exaggerate.” Both Edgecomb and Martin said they were pleased with the governor’s response to their concerns.
Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for LePage, declined to comment further on Congdon’s resignation other than to say it was effective immediately.
Congdon could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening. There was no immediate word on a potential replacement.
Congdon’s resignation was the latest setback for the new LePage administration, which has struggled to find nominees for high-profile posts and has found itself at odds with the Republican-controlled Legislature.
While the situation surrounding Congdon had apparently been simmering quietly for several weeks, that was not the case involving Brown, who has been the subject of public scrutiny since his confirmation proceedings.
Before joining DEP, Brown was the owner and founder of Main-Land Development Consultants, a firm that often assists developers seeking permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the DEP.
The Androscoggin River Alliance had petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate whether Brown’s position with and income from Main-Land should disqualify him from handling cases under the Clean Water Act. They also questioned whether that income should disqualify him from service as DEP commissioner.
Responding to requests for guidance from Brown’s attorney, the attorney general on Tuesday informed Brown that, unless he could produce documents proving otherwise, he appeared unqualified to serve as DEP commissioner due to a potential conflict of interest.
In his letter, Schneider wrote that while the federal Clean Water Act would appear to allow Brown to recuse himself or delegate work to others, the same option does not exist under Maine law when it comes to the DEP.
Maine law clearly states that, once legal income thresholds are reached, a person “may not serve as commissioner.” If a conflict exists, the letter continues, it would “undermine your legal authority on any matter coming before you as commissioner.”
“Under these circumstances, you have two options: produce the necessary documentation showing the absence of a conflict, or otherwise take action to resolve this matter,” Schneider wrote. “In the absence of new information, it appears you are unqualified to serve as commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection under Maine law.”
The LePage administration announced that Brown will, instead, take over as head of the State Planning Office, which LePage has proposed to eliminate in his two-year budget.
Speaking to reporters outside of the State Planning Office in Augusta, Brown said he feared that the perceptions of a potential conflict of interest would distract from important work at the department. Those concerns were underscored last week when the Androscoggin River Alliance raised the issue of a potential conflict of interest when appealing a DEP permit for a resort casino in Oxford County, a project involving Main-Land Development.
Brown said he did not want his presence at the DEP to affect the largest construction project in Maine — estimated at $165 million — and the potential to create hundreds of jobs in an economically distressed corner of Maine.
“Remaining at the DEP would not be part of moving the economy forward,” Brown said. “It would be standing in the way of good development and good jobs, and in good conscience I could not continue to let that happen.”
Both Brown and LePage said, however, that his situation illustrates the need to change a Maine law that they contend prevents qualified business people from serving as commissioners. The administration is working on a legislative proposal.
“It is unfortunate that Maine law is so inflexible that it can be read to prevent good people from serving,” LePage said in a statement. “This is another example of the costs of Maine going beyond federal standards. I have discussed this issue with legislative leaders and am pleased that there is support for legislation to fix this problem.”
Jim Brooks, director of the Bureau of Air Quality, will become acting DEP commissioner.
In other administration news, LePage also announced that he intends to nominate retired Lt. Gen. Robert Winglass to be the commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor.
Winglass, who rose through the ranks to eventually become chief of staff for Installations and Logistics, Headquarters Marine Corps, retired from the service in 1992 and was elected to the Maine House of Representatives where he served for four years as a member of the Transportation Committee and Health and Human Services Committee, the governor’s office said in the release.
Winglass subsequently was employed by the IBM Corp. as the director of the Strategic Business Relationships Team in the Software Division.
LePage had previously nominated Cheryl Russell to head up the DOL, but she withdrew from consideration in February.
LePage also announced Wednesday that former Republican U.S. representative and former gubernatorial candidate David Emery has been selected as deputy commissioner for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.
BDN writers Jen Lynds in Houlton and Matt Wickenheiser in Portland contributed to this report.