Maine deserves to know why LePage suddenly likes land conservation

“It’s the culture of status quo: You rub my back, I’ll rub your back and we’ll make some money.”

That was Gov. Paul LePage back in December 2015, describing the Land for Maine’s Future program.

LePage makes a lot of loose claims about shady actions in government. But it appears he could be onto something here. Not about the Augusta land conservation effort he labeled “corrupt” without the slightest bit of evidence, but a little deal of his own that’s starting to get some attention.

It’s called the Big Six Forest Conservation Easement, a $5.7 million effort to protect from development a huge swath of land on Maine’s Canadian border. Through a combination of federal, state, and private funds, the land’s owner is looking for a large payoff to keep the land functioning as it is, producing maple syrup. Part of this funding mix would be more than $1 million from the Land for Maine’s Future program.

For years, LePage has tried to undermine the LMF program, claiming it was a tool for the wealthy that was paid for to the detriment of Maine taxpayers.

Gov. LePage helps 10-year-old Brooklyn Tarbox of Gorham hammer a tap into a Blaine House maple tree earlier this month. Micky Bedell | BDN

LePage told a radio interviewer he would stand in the way of a proposed LMF project in Augusta last year, because  “I think that is gouging the taxpayers of the state of Maine and I won’t do it because it is corrupt.”

And as the Portland Press Herald reported in January, “LePage has been critical of Maine’s land conservation and environmental communities, claiming conservation programs largely benefit only wealthy landowners looking for property tax shelters.”

LePage famously failed to release taxpayer-approved bonds for the program, and caused a conflagration in the Legislature. Eventually he relented, but he was so opposed to the program as a concept that he was willing to face legal rebuke in order to undermine it.

So it’s quite a surprise to learn, through a recent report by the Bangor Daily’s Mike Shepherd, that LePage has done a 180-degree spin and is now fully supportive of pushing LMF funds to the Big Six project.

What could have caused LePage to have such a drastic change of heart?

Enter Paul Fortin.

Fortin is the owner of the Big Six land, and would be the recipient of the millions in taxpayer funding if the conservation easement is approved. The total size of the project is more than 23,600 acres, which would make Fortin a pretty good match for LePage’s “wealthy landowner” categorization.

So how does a “wealthy landowner” like Fortin come to win the governor’s support for a $5 million taxpayer-subsidized windfall?

According to Maine and federal campaign finance reports, Fortin has been a major contributor to Paul LePage’s political efforts.

Fortin and his company donated $6,000 to the governor’s campaign in 2014. And last year he upped the ante.

In July 2016, Fortin stepped up to the plate in a major way. He wrote a check for a whopping $20,000 to LePage’s “IcePAC” political action committee.

Fortin’s donations to LePage’s campaign are not anything out of the ordinary. But writing a check for $20,000 to a PAC when the governor isn’t even up for reelection is a pretty major development.

And when the governor of a state does an about-face after years of opposition to a program like LMF after receiving a massive political donation, and when that policy change means a multi-million dollar payout to the donor, someone has to start asking questions.

What the people of Maine deserve to know is — did LePage and Fortin discuss the Big Six project as part of the donation solicitation?

Did anyone on LePage’s staff discuss this project within the context of what may be the biggest political donation Fortin ever made, and one of the biggest donations ever made to LePage’s PAC?

The implications of such a potential quid pro quo are substantial. The very definition of corruption is the exchange of campaign donations for policy favoritism. In this case, we’d be talking about the exchange of a $20,000 donation for more than $1 million in Maine taxpayer funds, and a pathway to more than $5 million altogether in federal, state, and private funds.

As the governor himself put it, “You rub my back, I’ll rub your back and we’ll make some money.”

LePage is not a sophisticated political actor, and it’s not surprising that he and his neophyte handlers would be oblivious to the horrible optics of such a situation. The irony here is that the Big Six deal looks terrible primarily because of the governor’s own characterizations of the LMF program.  LePage needs to explain why using taxpayer funds for land conservation in other cases is “corrupt”, but using them to the benefit of one of his biggest donors is not.

The people of Maine deserve to know the facts behind the Big Six project and Gov. LePage’s sudden change of heart.

Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.