Watchdog: No Evidence LePage Played Role In Timber Diversion To Canadian Company

Aug 21, 2018

The Maine Legislature’s watchdog agency says it found no evidence that Republican Gov. Paul LePage diverted shipments of timber to punish two lumber mill owners who had publicly criticized his opposition to tariffs on Canadian softwood. But the report also acknowledged that investigators could not find a paper trail to document the LePage administration’s rationale for diverting the timber.

Nevertheless, the governor, feeling vindicated, insulted the lawmaker who requested the investigation during a fiery exchange that ended when LePage stormed out of Monday’s meeting by the Government Oversight Committee.

The 12-page report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, was based on interviews with state officials, including LePage, who has repeatedly been criticized for heavy-handed efforts to punish political adversaries.

And it was precisely that reputation that prompted some lawmakers to question whether the governor had directed Doug Denico of the Maine Forest Service to divert timber shipments from mills owned by Jason and Chris Brochu in February.

The Brochus had sharply criticized the governor for pursuing a Canada-first agenda when he came out against new tariffs on Canadian softwood imposed by the Trump administration.

But LePage has vehemently denied that his administration sought vengeance against the Brochus, as he did again on Monday after telling the Government Oversight Committee that the OPEGA report exonerated him.

“My only issue here today is to say that I am telling you did not divert any wood and I never would have. And it’s repulsive,” LePage said. “I am a person who does not need to go behind people’s backs.”

LePage then suggested that Republican state Sen. Tom Saviello, one of the governor’s frequent critics, had fabricated events to gin up support for the OPEGA investigation.

Saviello hit back.

“First of all, I don’t fabricate anything. That’s not my style. I just deal with the facts,” he said.

“You’ve been doing it for eight years, sir,” LePage said.

“I’m not going to argue with you governor. And I’m not going to be intimidated by your insinuations,” Saviello said.

Republican Sen. Roger Katz, co-chair of the oversight committee, stepped in to try and ease tensions between LePage and Saviello. It didn’t work.

“Governor, I just want to say that as far as anything I have seen, no one has accused you of doing anything,” Katz said.

“Bull,” LePage said, turning again to Saviello.

The governor stopped short of completing the expletive, but he again turned his attention to Saviello.

“This man over here is the most repugnant human being I’ve seen in my life,” he said.

“Governor, respectfully, sir. You’re out of order,” Katz said.

“Thank you,” LePage said, and then stormed out of the meeting.

And while he seemed to believe that he has prevailed over the timber controversy, it appears likely to follow him, at least into September.

Several lawmakers suggested that OPEGA’s report left many questions unanswered.

The agency was able to obtain over 6,300 LePage administration emails, but outgoing director Beth Ashcroft said very few of them shed light on the decision to divert timber away from mills owned by the Brochus.

Ashcroft said dearth of documents wasn’t necessarily unusual.

Even though the state receives millions of dollars for the sale of wood on public lands — $4 million last year — there isn’t much of a paper trail to document some transactions that are largely done over the phone or in person.

“What we saw was that there wasn’t what I would call standard operating procedure,” Ashcroft said.

That part of the OPEGA report was overshadowed by LePage’s comments, which drew a sharp rebuke from Katz, who said the governor’s conduct was inappropriate.

“And in my view, unworthy of the chief executive of the state of Maine,” he said.

Before abruptly leaving the meeting, the governor demanded an apology.

He left with lawmakers on the oversight committee not only asking one of him, but also voting to continue their probe.

The committee hopes to interview several state officials and mill owners during its next meeting in September.

In the case of LePage officials, who have repeatedly spurned voluntary requests to appear before the committee, subpoenas are possible, if not likely.

Originally published Aug. 20, 2018 at 9:30 a.m. ET.