AUGUSTA, Maine — The LePage administration’s former economic development chief on Thursday denied making insensitive remarks during a recent trip to Aroostook County and, instead, suggested he was the victim of politically motivated attacks.
Philip Congdon, who abruptly resigned this week as commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, said he was puzzled by the remarks being attributed to him.
Congdon, 69, also said he sent an email to Gov. Paul LePage making clear that he “will not be silent much longer.”
“I’m being accused of saying things that I did not say, but I don’t know how to refute them,” Congdon said in an interview with the Bangor Daily News on Thursday evening. “I think there is a political agenda here.”
The former commissioner has been accused of making statements suggesting that
Aroostook County residents needed to “get off the reservation” and work harder as well as remarks critical of affirmative action that subsequently have been described by some as racist.
Congdon allegedly made the comments during a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Caribou and during a private higher-education function at Northern Maine Community College.
On Wednesday, Congdon resigned his post after Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, relayed what he was hearing from constituents in a letter to LePage. The governor also spoke to Rep. Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou, who confirmed he also heard from people upset by the remarks.
“I did not tell anybody in Aroostook County to ‘get off the reservation,’” Congdon said. Instead, Congdon said he may have told a group that he, himself, was going to get off the reservation as a flippant way of saying he was about to say something not necessarily consistent with the LePage administration’s message. The Bristol resident said he is part Penobscot Indian and would not intentionally offend Native Americans.
During the lengthy interview, Congdon would not clarify what he said regarding affirmative action and race in higher education, saying he wanted more time to respond fully given the sensitivity of the issue. Anecdotal accounts passed along through Martin and other lawmakers had Congdon suggesting that affirmative action has contributed to the decline of higher education.
Some firsthand witnesses said Congdon also offended audience members by talking about
“poor parenting” and dismayed listeners with an overly pessimistic outlook about the region’s economic potential rather than talking about opportunities.
“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,” Jenny Coon, interim executive director of the Caribou Chamber of Commerce, said Wednesday. “It was really off the wall, and it didn’t amuse many people, especially in an agricultural community so proud of its heritage.”
Again, Congdon disputed such suggestions.
“I will categorically say that is an untrue statement,” he said. As for the alleged comments about “poor parenting,” Congdon said that was a distortion of a conversation he had about how both parents and teachers must take responsibility for educating children to address the sizable percentage of college freshmen who need remedial education.
A former executive and engineer at technology companies who retired to Maine, Congdon apparently met LePage during a meeting for constitutionalists in Waldo County. During his confirmation hearings, he acknowledged that his economic development resume was “thin” but said he believed his career experience would help him create jobs.
And on Thursday, Congdon said one of the fruits of his work within DECD was unveiled when LePage announced that the American Bureau of Shipping was creating 30 well-paying, high-tech jobs in Brunswick. He predicted additional similar announcements in the coming weeks.
“I think I have done my part to bring business into Maine,” Congdon said, his voice breaking with emotion. He then expressed disappointment with the way he has been treated and, reciting from his email to LePage, said he felt the need to protect his family from harmful and untrue accusations against him.
“The bottom line is I did not stand up in front of 100 people and make the statements … being attributed to me,” he said.
For his part, LePage declined to respond to the specific allegations made against his administration’s former top economic development official.
“Let’s put it this way: My actions should speak for themselves,” LePage told reporters Thursday morning.
But the governor did defend his administration when asked whether, in retrospect, he felt Congdon had been screened adequately before his nomination.
“Absolutely. He was vetted. Believe me, he was vetted,” he said.
LePage then said Congdon had not made any objectionable comments during the vetting process. Pressed about whether the issue of economic development in Aroostook County had come up, LePage said it had, but did not elaborate before walking into his office.
“I don’t know what you think happened, OK, but we had a personnel problem,” LePage said. “We took care of it.”
Some people have questioned why it took several weeks for his administration to respond to the alleged statements, made in early April. LePage said he had been unaware of the remarks until he received the letter from Martin — a political institution in Aroostook County — detailing the allegations. Both Martin and LePage declined to release the contents of the letter.
Despite LePage’s statements that it was time to “move on” from the Congdon issue, the bizarre series of events surrounding his resignation were still reverberating around the State House on Thursday.
His resignation attracted much more attention — from both lawmakers and the media — than his nomination or his confirmation. He received unanimous support from the legislative committee that reviewed his nomination and was approved in a 26-9 vote in the Senate.
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, was among the nine Democrats who voted against Congdon on the Senate floor. Alfond made a point during his floor remarks of reminding the chamber about Congdon’s lack of economic development experience and knowledge about Maine’s largest and northernmost county.
Alfond has voted against several LePage nominees, all of whom have passed the Senate with wide margins.
“I keep hearing from my constituents that these people aren’t qualified, they aren’t prepared, and some of them have conflicts of interest,” Alfond said. “So I chose to follow my gut.”
Alfond’s mention of conflicts of interest were a reference to another LePage Cabinet member, Darryl Brown, who also resigned Wednesday, from his post as commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.
While he offered few details about Congdon’s departure, LePage seemed eager to discuss the circumstances that led to Brown’s resignation from the DEP and subsequent appointment as the director of the State Planning Office.
Earlier this week, the Attorney General’s Office said it appeared Brown had a conflict of interest as DEP commissioner because of his financial interests in a consulting firm, Main-Land Development Consultants, that he owns. The firm represented developers as they sought DEP permits for projects.
The Androscoggin River Alliance cited those conflicts in its appeal of DEP permits issued to a $165 million resort casino in Oxford County. Main-Land Development is representing the developer, although Brown said he removed himself entirely from the project at the DEP.
On Thursday, LePage criticized the inflexibility of the Maine law that he said forced Brown to step down. Federal regulators had said Brown could recuse himself from potential conflicts to avoid problems with the Clean Water Act, but Maine law does not permit such recusals.
The governor said he would “seek to have it removed” so that businesspeople such as Brown can serve in state government.
“I’m frustrated that you’re losing a very, very brilliant guy who can help business, he can help the environment,” LePage said. “He can help transition that department into a very pro-development and pro-environment [agency]. He is very knowledgeable.”
But LePage also was not ruling out bringing Brown back after the law had been changed.