AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage has threatened to withdraw his support for a commission tasked with the emotionally charged process of unearthing a history of injustices against tribal children and their families if it continues with the involvement of Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.
According to Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, the governor sees a conflict of interest around Dunlap’s involvement with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was created in 2011 through a letter of intent signed by LePage and tribal leaders. A selection panel that included representatives from state government convened last year, and in February of this year, the five members of the commission were sworn in during a ceremony in Hermon.
“Because Mr. Dunlap holds a fiduciary and ethical relationship of trust with the State of Maine as its Secretary of State and simultaneously serves as a truth and reconciliation commissioner, the governor believes the independence of the commission is compromised,” Bennett said in a prepared statement. “Mr. Dunlap’s capacity as Secretary of State makes it impossible for him to serve independently or in a personal capacity as commissioner.”
Dunlap said Monday that though LePage has voiced concerns about a conflict of interest to him in the past, he didn’t know why the governor decided to raise the issue now.
“His participation, even long before I was involved, was significant,” said Dunlap of LePage. “It was the first time in the world a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has happened like this. Nonetheless, we’re proceeding forward.”
Dunlap said he has had discussions with others on the commission as well as tribal leaders and has no intention of leaving the commission.
This isn’t the first time LePage has attempted to use the commission as a bargaining chip. Last week, LePage threatened to pull support for the commission if the Passamaquoddy Tribe didn’t adhere to state rules regarding elver fishing.
According to Newell Lewey, a Passamaquoddy official who sat in on a phone call from the governor, LePage threatened to withdraw support for issues of importance to the Passamaquoddy — including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a possible casino in Washington County — during a brief call with tribal leaders last Monday morning.
Later in the week, tribal members met with lawmakers and the Department of Marine Fisheries commissioner and said that progress had been made on resolving the elver issue.
Esther Attean, who has been involved with the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is transitioning to director of the community organization as its work begins in earnest, said Monday morning that neither she nor anyone associated with the commission has heard anything directly from the governor’s office.
“What’s been reported in the news is all that the commission staff has been notified of,” said Attean. “We don’t see a conflict of interest and neither did the commission selection panel. I have yet to see an explanation of what the conflict of interest is.”
The commission is gearing up for what by any measure is an emotional issue of paramount importance to Native Americans and tribal-state relations: the taking of Wabanaki children from their families. For more than a century, state agencies and churches put those children in foster care or schools where wedges were driven between them and their culture.
According to Attean, a selection panel made up of five tribal representatives, five state officials, two members of the original convening group and a representative of the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission sorted through more than 60 applicants before settling on the five commissioners. Dunlap, a Wampanoag man named gkisedtanamoogk, Gail Werrbach, Sandra White Hawk and Carol Wishcamper will spend years collecting and recording stories with the goal of creating a report that recommends ways to prevent harmful welfare practices in the future. Attean said she does not know whether the appointments were unanimous because deliberations were held in private but that Dunlap’s potential to be re-elected secretary of state this year after a two-year hiatus while Republicans held a majority in the Legislature was discussed at length.
Attean said she is not aware of any power LePage holds over the commission, which has hired an executive director who starts next week, though the commission and tribes would rather have Maine’s chief executive backing them.
“His support matters in that this is a very unique process; this is the first time in the world that a truth and reconciliation process has ever started like this,” said Attean. “We were very excited and heartened by his support, but this will not affect the work. The work will continue.”
Maine is already ahead of many states in its attention to the treatment of Native American children. In addition to the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in 1995 Maine became one of the first and only states where the Legislature passed a law that recognizes the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. Just two weeks ago, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills signed an amicus brief in support of tribal interests in a case under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bennett said LePage does not want to interfere with the commission’s process.
“Rather than create a public stir, Gov. LePage discussed the issue with the tribes as well as Mr. Dunlap,” wrote Bennett in response to emailed questions. “He did not want to disrupt the [commission’s] process but the conflict disallows his support.”
Attean said she hopes LePage has a change of heart.
“I have a lot of faith in this process and I have seen it work,” said Attean. “I continue to pray for Gov. LePage. He’s in my prayers at night so that he can also see this healing take place.”