PORTLAND, Maine — “Confused” was the word that Brig. Gen. James Campbell kept saying Thursday morning during an hour-long interview with the Bangor Daily News.
“I’m confused. I’m humbled. I’m embarrassed,” a visibly distraught Campbell said. “My military career is over. But I’m not interested in getting into a mudslinging contest with the governor.”
But a mudslinging contest is exactly what’s going on, and Campbell is the one with mud on him.
Gov. Paul LePage summarily relieved Campbell of his command of the Maine National Guard on Tuesday, not long before Campbell was to deliver a speech to a joint session of the state House and Senate.
“My comment to him was, ‘Yes sir, I understand,’” Campbell said. “I went back to my office, called my wife and told her I’d been fired. Then I got in my car and went home.”
According to news reports, LePage’s staff had been conducting an internal review of Campbell, which came to a head when hundreds of emails were released this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request originally filed by the Portland Press Herald and followed up on by the BDN.
LePage has not specified exactly what caused him to terminate Campbell, other than saying it was material from the emails. When pressed for details Thursday, LePage affirmed that information contained in the emails spurred him to fire Campbell but offered no specifics.
Campbell also revealed Thursday that he offered to resign last year after media reports generated controversy about a proposal to convert the 133rd Engineer Battalion to an infantry unit, but the governor refused to accept it.
At issue is whether Campbell defied LePage — who is commander in chief of the Maine National Guard — or at least went behind the governor’s back with a plan to replace the engineering unit with an infantry unit. Campbell said swapping the units would mean Maine would lose about 23 Guard members as opposed to up to 100.
Campbell said he started having discussions with the Department of the Army and the National Guard Bureau in June 2013 about mandated cuts to the Guard that were necessary because of the 2011 Budget Control Act, which forced budget sequestration beginning in March 2013.
By the fall of 2013, higher-ups had attached specific numbers to the plan in terms of personnel and units that could be cut, according to Campbell. He said swapping one of Maine’s engineering units for an infantry unit would preserve more positions in Maine, which is why he pursued the plan.
He said he kept LePage up to date on developments and that, although LePage didn’t like it, he didn’t order Campbell to do anything differently.
“I’ve been in the Army for almost 30 years. I know how to follow orders,” Campbell said Thursday. “I’m not a stupid man. I don’t do things without talking to my boss and I don’t do things behind my boss’ back.”
Campbell said he had discussions with LePage at least three times in recent months about the plan, including Thursday, March 19, at a Blaine House luncheon. Campbell, who declined to let the BDN record Thursday’s interview on video, said he and LePage dined alone.
“I told him, ‘If you don’t want us to proceed, if you want us to tell the Guard bureau to turn this off and withdraw from the conversation,’ to say so,” Campbell said. “The governor understood that we would incur potentially greater losses if the eventual force reductions came.”
Campbell said he offered to show LePage the emails during last week’s luncheon but that LePage declined.
Requests by the BDN for an interview with LePage on Wednesday and Thursday were not responded to by the governor’s staff. During a news conference Thursday on a separate matter, LePage confirmed that he had lunch at the Blaine House last week with Campbell.
LePage refused to say what piece of information, exactly, pushed him to fire the brigadier general.
“Go read the emails and you can tell for yourself. I think it sticks right out,” he said. “Gen. Campbell and I had a difference of opinion, and since I was his superior, I asked him to find another career. Everything else is a personnel matter, and frankly I did what I thought was best for the state of Maine.”
LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said later Thursday that despite the revelations about Campbell and his subsequent firing, the governor was still committed to doing everything in his power to keep the 133rd in Maine.
“As far as the governor is concerned, the movement of the 133rd is a dead issue,” Bennett said. She said LePage has plans to meet with the new adjutant general, Brig. Gen. Gerard Bolduc, next week and that the subject of the engineer battalion would “likely come up.”
Campbell said that in the early days of talks about the unit swap, he tried to keep the discussions quiet from personnel, some of whom were serving in Afghanistan at the time, in an effort to avoid causing stress for them and their families about decisions that were months or years from realization.
Campbell said he offered his resignation to LePage after the Portland Press Herald published a story about the unit swap in April 2014.
“I said if me departing the scene is going to make sense, say the word and I’m out of here,” Campbell said. “He told me, ‘You will resign under no circumstances.’ He was very supportive. He said, ‘This is going to blow over; you’re fine.’”
One directive from LePage at the time, according to Campbell, was an order to stop talking to the media about the situation.
Some have claimed in recent days that talks about swapping units — and specifically moving engineering units out of Maine — could have been moot because the Pentagon prefers to keep such units in border states, in part to help with border security. Campbell said that is not a factor in Maine.
“That has nothing to do with this,” Campbell said. “We were vulnerable because we have a high concentration of engineer units in the state. Maine does not have a high concentration of engineer units because we’re a border state. It was a random act over time [that led to the concentration of engineer units].”
Campbell said that part of what confuses him about LePage firing him is that he advocated for the plan only in response to requests from the federal government that he prepare budget scenarios. Final decisions about the federal budget — and how it would affect Maine — remain months or perhaps even a year away.
“It was not a decision, not a binding agreement,” Campbell said. “It was a proposal to discuss as a possibility. It was about asking [if we have done] everything in its entirety so we could try to convert to the units we anticipate would be growing instead of shrinking.”
One thing about Campbell that has been whispered to reporters, off the record, is that he was a divisive and bombastic leader. He didn’t deny that in Thursday’s interview. He said he was tasked by LePage to “move the organization into the 21st century,” including changes to the way the staff operated and implementing policies mandated by the Army. Campbell said he also fired several people for issues involving sexual assault and harassment.
“I’m not going to apologize for the fact that I instituted policies that ruffled some feathers,” he said.
Campbell said he was about six weeks away from a military promotion. After LePage relieved him of his command, Campbell will be put on a 30-day waiting list for another assignment, but the chances of that happening are near zero.
“I’m just going to move on with my wife,” he said.
BDN writer Mario Moretto contributed to this report.