June 25, 2013

Sources describe a department under duress

Scrutiny intensifies, transparency falters, and there's new pressure, DEP insiders say, to tell 'one side of the story: the client's side.'

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Published June 16, 2013

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The Office of the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is housed in this State House Station building in Augusta. Sources within the department and others who have since left say policy changes under the leadership of former lobbyist Patricia Aho have stifled interaction with the public and limited the role of in-house experts in crafting policy. In addition, at least 85 of the department’s 400 staffers have left since Gov. Paul LePage took office at the beginning of 2011.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Patricia Aho

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AUGUSTA - Every change of administration brings a change in priorities, and in early 2011 staffers within the Department of Environmental Protection fully expected Gov. Paul LePage to direct them to reduce regulatory burdens on business. What actually happened shocked nearly everyone, including workers who had seen partisan transitions dating back to the Longley, Brennan and McKernan administrations of the 1970s and 1980s.

The Telegram interviewed nearly two dozen current and former DEP employees with wide-ranging backgrounds, seniority and responsibilities. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation against themselves, their colleagues or their current employers.

The interviews paint a picture of a department under siege, with staff experts under verbal orders to no longer initiate communications with the outside world or to provide technical information even to legislators. Some employees alleged that certain staffers have been targeted for elimination and, as one current employee put it, "are hounded and bullied out of office."

"There was an immediate gag order put on staff and on staff's ability to freely interact with the public and talk about environmental concerns or to make requirements of people," says James Cassida, who was director of the DEP's Division of Land Resource Regulation when he left the department in August 2011. He says the policy was unprecedented.

"No staff other than a select few were allowed to speak to the Legislature in any shape or form, formal or informal," Cassida added, noting legislators typically request DEP experts to provide technical information on various issues.

"I was still allowed, but I was closely watched in terms of what I said. There were a couple of times where I was in front of a legislative committee and a legislator would ask me a question that I had a hard time answering in a way that fit into the parameters that I was allowed. And that was something I'd never experienced."

"Historically, we'd provide both sides of a given regulatory issue to legislators, and they would make policy as they saw fit," says a current DEP staffer. "But the current commissioner is a lobbyist, and that approach is to tell only one side of the story: the client's side of the story."

Most state employees interviewed said that once corporate lobbyist Patricia Aho became acting commissioner in June 2011, power was quickly and intensely concentrated in her hands and those of two other political appointees -- policy director Heather Parent and the then-communications director, Samantha DePoy-Warren -- and that decisions on complex technical matters are often made in secret and without input from in-house experts.

"Those three folks make all the decisions," one current staffer said. "A lot of draft regulations go up there and nothing happens. They just don't want anything going forward."

(DePoy-Warren left the department last month and is now communications director at the Education Department.)

"There's a total disregard for the expertise and experience of highly qualified staff," says Malcolm Burson, who resigned as the department's deputy policy director in November 2011 after Aho directed him to stop overseeing the creation of the state's climate adaptation strategy. "It all seems to be about maintaining total control."


Aho disagrees with the notion that staff were being shut out of decisions, although she acknowledged that policy formulation was now being conducted by dedicated policy staff. Technical experts "are still involved," she said in a February interview. "They are still very much part of the whole process. The only difference is that the people who format the reports are different."

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