AUGUSTA, Maine — As promised, Gov. Paul LePage has introduced a late bill that will amend conflict of interest rules to ensure that individuals with a development background may serve on the state’s citizen environmental board.
The bill also conceivably could allow LePage’s recently resigned commissioner of environmental protection to return to his post. However, the governor emphasized Wednesday that he has no intention of reappointing Darryl Brown as DEP chief.
Last month Brown stepped down as commissioner of the DEP after a ruling by Attorney General William Schneider that showed Brown was likely in violation of the conflict of interest provision in the Clean Water Act.
LePage’s bill, LD 1575, would bring the provision in compliance with federal law, thereby conceivably paving the way for Brown to return to the DEP post. Nonetheless, the governor has insisted that he won’t reappoint Brown, who has since been reassigned to the State Planning Office.
Last month the governor left the door open for Brown’s return when he told reporters that he planned to introduce the legislation this session and that reappointing Brown was under consideration.
Assurances that Brown won’t be reappointed appear to have convinced Democratic leadership to sign on as co-sponsors to LePage’s bill.
Democrats said Wednesday the conflict provision that sacked Brown has raised similar questions about members serving on the Board of Environmental Protection, the citizen board that has decision-making authority apart from the DEP and rules on licensing and permitting for development projects.
Democrats said they would withdraw from the legislation if the governor reneged on his promise not to reappoint Brown.
There’s no guarantee that Brown would survive a second go-round through the Legislature’s confirmation process.
Brown’s potential violation of the conflict of interest provision in the Clean Water Act was identified by the Androscoggin River Alliance. Before that, Democrats expressed concern that Brown was “a fox guarding the henhouse” because he was the CEO of Main-Land Development, a firm involved in several large development projects, including the planned Oxford County casino.
Although Brown had left the firm to head the DEP, Democrats and environmental organizations questioned whether he could divorce his business interests sufficiently from his state duties.
Democrats asked the Attorney General’s Office to weigh in on the matter after the LePage administration declined to do so.
In a letter dated April 27, the attorney general notified Brown about the potential conflict saying, “In the absence of new information, it appears you are unqualified to serve as commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection under Maine law.”
Brown said last month that he was unsure whether he would return to Main-Land, which he put up for sale when he took the DEP post. He said one of the reasons he resigned from the DEP post was that the company’s financial data would be subject to Freedom of Access laws through the EPA investigation.
Brown said the disclosure could jeopardize the sale of Main-Land.
Immediately after Brown was reassigned, LePage indicated he was determined to amend Maine law, which he described as “so inflexible that it can be read to prevent good people from serving.”
Steve Hinchman, the attorney for the Androscoggin River Alliance, the group that initiated the investigation by the EPA, said last month that Maine’s law already matches federal law and that changes could cause the bureaucracy the governor is seeking to eliminate.