Monday, January 31, 2011

Maine: LePage's promising DMR pick

Gov. Paul LePage's administration has given political reporters plenty of unflattering material of late, from crude outbursts against the NAACP to controversial plans to roll back environmental and consumer protection laws and to perhaps use civil servants for political purposes. His cabinet nominations have been no exception, with one corporate donor scoring leadership of the department that oversees their industry, a developer taking over the Department of Environmental Protection, and the chief hospital lobbyist leading Health and Human Services.

But, as I write in my bimonthly column in Working Waterfront this month, LePage's choice as commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources looks to be a sound one. A fisherman turned high-level diplomat, Norman Olsen has an intriguing set of skills to bring to bear at DMR. I talked to him before his confirmation.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Maine: Scarcelli caught in her lie

Former Maine gubernatorial candidate and prospective Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rosa Scarcelli has been caught lying about her knowledge of her husband's involvement in the Cutler Files website controversy. MPBN's Aj Higgins has it all on tape, although he doesn't explicitly connect the dots for his listeners.

In the interview, Ms. Scarcelli says she knew her husband, Thomas Rhoads, had "done some Google" on Culter, but that she didn't learn of his involvement in the Cutler Files website until shortly after Labor Day and, as she says, prior to the Ethics Commission investigation, which officially went forward Oct. 20.

But here's what Scarcelli told the Portland Press Herald Oct. 27 -- nearly two months after she'd confronted her husband about the website: Scarcelli said in an interview that she and her husband have nothing to do with the website and that the rumors of their involvement are offensive. She said she hasn't even seen the site. "I have absolutely nothing to do with The Cutler Files, and I haven't even looked at the website," she said.

Another gem in the MPBN interview: listening to Mr. Rhoads try to pivot from asserting that his Cutler Files research was "just information collected out of personal interest" to his trying to sell it to Democratic nominee Libby Mitchell's campaign for $30,000. "Well, uh, it... it... I - I - I would hesitate to call it a price tag," Rhoads stammers "It was simply a discussion about what this might be worth." (He didn't inhale either.)

Apparently Scarcelli, her husband, and her campaign manager, Dennis Bailey, never digested an elementary rule in politics: a cover up is often more damaging than the crime.

[Update, 2/15/2011: Scarcelli tells me she didn't lie; see what you think of her defense in the lower part of the post.]

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Another day, another scandal for Maine's Governor

Maine's new governor, Paul LePage, has been in office for less than a month, but he's generating controversies at a bewildering rate. A piece I wrote a week ago for summarizing them already feels out of date, as he's added the appointment of a Corrections Corporation of America warden to head the Corrections Department, a provocative list of environmental and product safety regulations to be done away with, and, now, this...

Gerald Weinand at Dirigo Blue has published a troubling leaked e-mail from LePage's press secretary, Dan Demeritt, to unnamed insiders that contradicts campaign promises to "put people before politics." In fact, the memo promises that "once we take office, Paul will put 11,000 bureaucrats" -- the civil service of the state -- "to work getting Republicans re-elected," a plan that is, in fact, illegal. Sen. Snowe is said to be "geared up" to help, and will get her "state offices involved in increasing the profile of our people."

The Maine Dems are already making political hay from the leak, and Sen. Snowe's office has distanced itself from the situation.

Have a read of the original e-mail over at the end of the Dirigo Blue post, though I can't say you'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Is Maine's new governor damaging himself?

Maine Governor Paul LePage earned more bad national press in one weekend than his predecessor did in eight years in office. And the story kept on going here in Maine, fueled by the governor's sadly characteristic explanatory falsehoods.

My latest piece at asks if LePage's penchant for inflammatory speech and, frankly, making stuff up, is likely to do him political damage. The consensus: yes, if he doesn't change course. Interviews with Colby and USM political scientists, Republicans Kevin Raye and Phil Harriman, Democrats Emily Cain and Ethan Strimling, and the governor's spokesperson, Dan Demeritt.

A few items from my reporting that weren't of interest to a national audience, but might be to Mainers:

Mr. Demeritt tacitly admitted the Governor's "black prisoners" story was inaccurate: "It was 7 months ago right after the primary, and that was how Paul LePage and the one or two staff people understood the event [invitation] at the time."

Demeritt also said he -- and probably his boss -- didn't know about the Corrections Corporation of America's $25,000 PAC donation in support of LePage's candidacy. "It was a donation to the RGA. I didn’t know about it and I don’t believe Paul LePage knew of it. If there’s an opportunity to save the taxpayers money and create jobs in Milo that's something to look at." Since we spoke last week, LePage announced he was nominating a CCA warden to head the Department of Corrections.

Colby's Sandy Maisel observed that a Maine politician probably hasn't earned as much bad national press since James G. Blaine ("The Continental Liar From the State of Maine"), who left the U.S. Senate in 1881. "All the Tea Party people aren't like this," Maisel said. "You don't see Rand Paul talk like this, and he understands the issues better than Paul LePage. In fact, LePage may be the only winning candidate of all the Tea Party backed people who has been out there with what I consider outlandish quotes attacking others. The other Tea Party people who did that all lost."

As for the NAACP, Rachel Talbot Ross was sounding a conciliatory note last week. "At this point the NAACP is moving on and we hope to be able to schedule a meeting with the governor as soon as possible. We want to work with him ob very specific issues of economic justice." she said. "We’re trying to focus on a way to engage with him respectfully so that we can help Maine move forward. I’d rather not continue to comment on the governor’s unfortunate comments about the NAACP."

"We hold out some hope that we can educate the governor as to what the NAACP does and to see us as a resource and a partner moving forward," she added. " It's going to be a very difficult challenge given the way we’ve started the relationship but I don’t think it has to define it."

Monday, January 24, 2011

Maine Gov: is private prison firm getting what they paid for?

As I've reported both on this blog and in this week's Portland Phoenix, Governor Paul LePage was helped into office by the largess of fifty out of state corporations and industry associations, to which he now owes a considerable political debt.

One of those, the private prison builder/operator Corrections Corporation of America, seems to be getting an excellent return on their $25,000 investment in LePage's candidacy. Even before being sworn in, Mr. LePage vowed to help CCA build Maine's first private prison in Milo. Now he's showing how he plans to do that.

Yesterday, Gov. LePage announced he is nominating one of CCA's own wardens to head the Department of Corrections. MPBN reports nominee Joseph Ponte has served as a warden of a CCA prison in Nevada since 2006, though the governor didn't highlight this in his written comments to the press.

CCA, which has spent tens of thousands in lobbying to shape Maine's current biennial corrections budget, recently hired outgoing House Republican leader Josh Tardy (R-Newport) as their principal lobbyist. Mr. Tardy has his work cut out for him. As I reported in the Phoenix, CCA has refused to build the Milo prison unless Maine changes a law that prevents Maine prisoners from being housed in private prisons.

Will be interesting to see if Maine's newly-Republican legislature decides to go along with CCA's plans, or if they instead have a look at the company's record.

[Update, 10:41 pm: From MPBN: "Ponte confirmed that he still holds stock in CCA and that he is unwilling to divest himself of any financial interests should the state seek a future agreement with CCA. Ponte did say that, as commissioner, he would seek to avoid potential conflicts of interest."]

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Maine: Who bankrolled LePage - a closer look

Regular readers are aware I'm a firm believer in following the money in politics, and that recently been paying close attention to the corporate cash that fueled much of Maine Gov. Paul LePage's successful electoral bid. If corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals are to be granted unlimited rights to spend money to influence our elections, the public had best be aware of who has done so and what they might be hoping to get out of their investments.

My story in this week's issue of the Portland Phoenix explores the possible Maine interests of the fifty out-of-state corporations that funded the Republican Governors Association Maine PAC, which raised over $1.8 million and spent more than a million of it on ads supporting Mr. LePage or attacking his opponents. (That's more than LePage's own campaign.) As you'll see, some donors have clear and documentable interests -- indeed, they've had lobbyists in Augusta for years -- while others' angle can only be speculated at.

For more on the 2010 campaign in the Pine Tree State, try my Down East pieces on negative and false ads in the race (Feb. 2011) the significance of the election (Jan. 2011), and the moderates loss of control of the Maine GOP (Sept. 2010.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Who was behind Maine's ugly 2010 campaign ads?

Maine's 2010 election was one of the ugliest in the state in memory, with negative -- and sometimes entirely false -- advertisements bombarding voters from both parties. In a state that's long prided itself of political civility, some of these ads backfired badly, particularly when voters could tell who had paid for them.

My Talk of Maine piece in the new issue of Down East explores the phenomenon and the forces behind it. Interviews with angry politicos from across the political spectrum -- many of them angry at their own party for taking the low road -- including former Gov. Angus King, state Senate President Kevin Raye, Independent candidate Eliot Cutler, and Maine Democratic National Committeeman Sam Spencer.

Monthly magazines have notoriously long lead times, and since the magazine went to press, the Democratic challenger in the Hancock County senate race I describe in the lead has sued the Republican State Leadership Committee for libel. The Portland Press Herald ran an editorial on the subject that I find entirely off base: just because something can be described as "political speech" doesn't put it above the law (though I suspect in this case the plaintiff may find it hard to show "damages.") Also, "voters" can't "decide" who is right: the RSLC wasn't on the ballot, and their actions were condemned by both candidates. Will be interesting to see what the courts think.

Also, the final campaign disclosures pushed the RGA Maine PAC's war chest to over $1.8 million, and their ad buys in the gubernatorial race to over $1 million.

More on money in Maine elections coming up very, very shortly....

Friday, January 14, 2011

Maine: Governor tells NAACP to "kiss my butt"

As you may have heard by now, the newly-elected governor of Maine, Paul LePage, is upholding his reputation for impolitic remarks. On the eve of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the governor has told the NAACP to "kiss my butt."

My early filing on this just posted over at The Daily Beast. where you can find links to video of the governor in action. Updates should post shortly.

CBC / PRI Interview: Border Patrol's Internal Checkpoints

I was interviewed yesterday about Border Patrol story by CBC's As It Happens program, which is nationally syndicated in the U.S. by Public Radio International. You can hear the interview here - it's the first story in this second clip.

Like many of us, CBC Toronto was unaware that Border Patrol has been stopping people traveling domestically at checkpoints far from the northern border, although the practice has been quietly been going on for years. My story in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that foreign students and scholars have been getting caught up by these roving patrols and surprise checkpoints, sometimes within a few miles of campus. Some are being detained even though their documentation is in order, apparently because Border Patrol agents do not understand some of the subtleties of certain visa and change of status rules. (There are some additional accounts in the extensive comments thread accompanying the article.)

Customs and Border Patrol failed to respond to my questions about the issue, but it is my hope they will be more responsive going forward.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Maine Politics: Tardy finds a job

We're snowed in here in Maine, but I'm working on another story having to do with campaign money. Dig around in disclosures, and every once in a while you accidentally run across an interesting item. Here's today's scrap of news, for obsessive politicos:

The highest ranking Republican to have to leave the State House on account of term limits -- outgoing minority House leader Josh Tardy of Newport -- has apparently found new work. He's joined forces with (Democratic) corporate lobbyist Jim Mitchell (George Mitchell's nephew and ex-Gov. Baldacci's cousin) to form Mitchell/Tardy Governmental Affairs. According to a newly-filed lobbyist's registration form, Mr. Tardy will be representing the interests of the Corrections Corporation of America before his former colleagues in Augusta. (Mr. Mitchell's firm has represented CCA for years.)

Even before being sworn into office, Gov. Paul LePage has pledged to help CCA build a private federal prison in Milo. In October, the private prison company contributed $25,000 to help Mr. LePage win the election via the Republican Governors Association Maine PAC.

[Update, 1/24/2011: LePage has nominated a CCA warden to head the Dept. of Corrections.]

Monday, January 10, 2011

Border Patrol's "internal checkpoints" snare foreign students, scholars

I've been increasingly interested in U.S. Customs and Border Patrol's expanded use of so-called "internal checkpoints" and roving patrols along -- but up to a hundred miles south of -- the Canadian border. Despite the Fourth Amendment, Border Patrol stops and questions people engaged in purely domestic travel at highway stops, bus stations, or aboard moving trains far from the actual border. The agency maintains that current case law theoretically endorses such stops within 100 air miles of the border or ocean, a definition that includes most of the major cities in the United States, and the entirety of the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Florida, and Hawaii.

As I report in this week's edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, this is creating a climate of fear among international students and scholars at some higher education institutions lying within this expanded border zone because Border Patrol is reportedly refusing to recognize certain categories of legitimate immigration documents, resulting in the detention of people here entirely legally.

I was disappointed that Customs and Border Patrol failed to agree to my interview requests or to answer written questions about this issue over several weeks. Hopefully they will be more forthcoming going forward, as it would be interesting to understand how they see the issue and regulations.

[Update, 1/14/2011: I was interviewed about this story by CBC's As It Happens, a program syndicated in the U.S. by Public Radio International.]

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Facebook pages for my books

Having grudgingly accepted that Mark Zuckerberg has taken over the world, I've created Facebook pages for the three books I've published to date. Will post information relevant to their respective subjects on these pages, at least until Facebook goes the way of AOL, VHS, and Byzantium. If you're a fan of any of these books - or interested in their topics - consider 'liking' them to subscribe.

Here's the line-up, for those who've been spared by book length work:

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down is the most comprehensive history of the pirate gang responsible for 90 percent of our pop culture pirate iconography. No surprise that this one gang included many of the most famous pirates in history: Blackbeard, Sam Bellamy, Charles Vane, the gentleman pirate Stede Bonnet, Mary Read, Anne Bonny, Calico Jack Rackham, and many others. Has its own website as well. (First release: Harcourt, 2007.) Expect lots of news and insights about the golden age of piracy.

The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier is the story of coastal Maine and its people. Find out what Maine is all about, how it got that way, and where it's going. And, yes, you learn about the past and present of lobsters and lobstering as well, which explains the giant decapod Penguin put on the paperback cover. (First release: Viking, 2004.) Expect posts on the past, present, and future of my native state.

Ocean's End: Travels Through Endangered Seas is a narrative non-fiction account of the ecological crisis in the world's oceans, with firsthand accounts from Newfoundland, the Belize Barrier Reef, Antarctica, the Black Sea, southern Louisiana, the islands of the Central Pacific, and many points in between. The book shows the situation to be a human tragedy as well as an environmental one, and one caused by ignorance and apathy more than necessity. (First release: Basic, 2000.) Expect updates on the state of the undersea realm and those who rely on it.

But, no, I will not Tweet about any of this, even if it becomes the last form of communication on Earth.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Things to Watch, Hear, and Read, New Year's Editon

Welcome to 2011, and to the second anniversary of World Wide Woodard. To kick off the New Year, a few items of interest from the wider world.

Wikileaks - The Documentary: My blog got its start in Reykjavik, where Wikileaks made its first big pitch for sanctuary. I'm wondering if they'll be increasing their presence in Iceland if things get too hot and heavy in Sweden for founder Julian Assange. The most comprehensive documentary on the group's "history" -- if one can use that word for something so young -- aired on Swedish television last month. Friends and foes alike will learn something from setting aside an hour to watch. (The "Collateral Damage" helicopter tapes are still chilling.)

Ruins of Detroit: The Guardian has this arresting slide show of images from a dying American city. It provoked a lengthy capital vs labor blame game discussion when I posted it on my Facebook page. See what happens when you post it on yours. [Update, 1/5/2011: a friend-of-a-friend created this engaging video documentary, Detroit Lives, offering a second, more optimistic take on the Motor City,.]

Borders on the Brink: Speaking of Detroit, Ann Arbor-based Borders Books & Music is also in trouble. Publishers Weekly reported on Dec. 31 that the retailer has been cut off by one of the big six New York publishers after it stopped paying its bills. The Detroit News has this sobering follow-up, suggesting the firm may not survive.

Books on the Brink?: Will the Kindle and Amazon destroy the book industry or revive it? The Boston Review has an excellent and wide ranging article on the state of publishing, and what industry consolidation, big boxes, Amazon, and e-books have done to it. One of many depressing factoids: "It has become common practice for representatives of large retailers to weigh in on everything from book covers to sample chapters of manuscripts. In some cases, retailers even demand changes...Without their buy-in, the publisher is unlikely to go forward with a book." Perhaps Borders will be surrendering their seat to Amazon or Wal-Mart shortly.

Hungary on the Brink? Hungary's government is showing its true colors, and they aren't pretty. My friend Dumneazu has a comprehensive round-up of the situation from there. Good news is, I understand support for the farther-right Jobbik party -- subject of some of my not-so- recent reporting from the region -- has been on the wane.