Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Orwellian moment: Maine Gov's office claims Ann Robinson not an advisor

Preti Flaherty lobbyist Ann Robinson has been showing up frequently in my reporting this year. She served as co-chair of Gov. Paul LePage's transition team, compiled his much-maligned "Phase I" regulatory reform agenda, and serves as his key regulatory reform advisor, even as she maintains her day job as a corporate lobbyist. She also serves on the committee that recommends judicial nominees to the governor and -- as expected -- was just nominated to the board of MPBN by the governor.

This past week she's been under additional pressure from Democrats, after my Phoenix story revealed her to be the new state co-chair for the controversial American Legislative Exchange Committee. So, not surprisingly, the Bangor Daily News picked up on the story today, asking if it matters that corporations are writing many of the bills legislators introduce in Augusta.

But halfway down the story is a real shocker. Governor LePage's spokseperson, Adrienne Bennettt, told the News that despite "Democrats' claims," Ann Robinson is not an advisor to the governor!

Oh, really?

That's not what LePage's deputy chief of staff, Kathleen Newman, told the Portland Press Herald a few months ago. "Ann is a trusted adviser and friend to the governor and to our policy team," Newman said Feb. 11. "We appreciate her efforts to date and her commitment to continue to advise and assist the administration going forward as we seek to create clear, reasonable guidelines for businesses to grow and prosper while protecting our precious natural resources."

That's not what Bennett's old boss, communications director Dan Demeritt, told me in early February. "Ann Robinson is still advising the governor on regulatory reform matters," he said.

Indeed, that's not even what Ann Robinson's own web page at Preti Flaherty says today. "Ann served as Co-Chair of Governor Paul LePage's transition team, with specific responsibility for policy and regulatory review, and continues to serve in an advisory capacity," it reads.

Shame on Ms. Bennett for telling such a whopper. And shame on Eric Russell and his editors at the News for letting it go to print unchallenged.

[Update, 9/16/11: The governor's office has failed to respond to my questions about Robinson and ALEC, but in a round-about way I've obtained their response to this blog post. Dan Billings, LePage's in-house counsel and shadow communications chief, wrote Mike Tipping to complain that this blog post (cross-posted at Maine Politics) is misleading because it failed to note that Ms. Bennett had asserted that Robinson isn't a regular advisor to LePage.

Of course, as I wrote Billings, Robinson's "regularity" is irrelevant. LePage's office -- which describes her as a "trusted adviser and friend" -- allowed her to essentially write the governor's Phase I regulatory agenda. She presumably is still advising the governor on legislative and regulatory issues, even as she maintains her day job as a registered lobbyist for companies with interests in these issues and serves as ALEC's state co-chair. Billings' complaint appears entirely semantic in substance; Bennett is dismissing criticism on the grounds that Robinson isn't really an advisor when she actually is one, or at least was until, well, now.

Which raises another ambiguity: Bangor Daily News reporter Eric Russell has indicated in the comments section here that his understanding of the conversation he had with Bennett was not that she was asserting the regularity or irregularity of Robinson's status, but that she is not an advisor at this time.

So I posed the following questions to Billings to get to the bottom of things:

1. Is Robinson still an "irregular" advisor to the governor?

2. If not, when did she cease being one? Why the change in status?

3. How long has Robinson been affiliated with ALEC, beyond her new role as state co-chair?

4. Does your office have any conflict of interest concerns in regards to either her role at ALEC or her simultaneously compiling the governor's legislative agenda and being the registered lobbyist of interested parties?

He hasn't responded, but I'll let you know if he does.]


  1. In super classic form, Blogspot is having trouble saving my comments.

    Thanks so much for covering this. I was curious: In the spirit of the question, 'who-the-hell-actually-works-for-the-governor?', what's the deal with Erick Bennett and his supposed employment with the LePage campaign, anyway? What's the status of Bragdon's ethics complain against the guy?


    I am just curious to know if anything came of that.

  2. Sounds like Monty Python's dead parrot routine.

  3. Colin,
    We acknowledged that she served on the transition team and that she assisted with LD 1. We asked the question about her current role in his administration and reported the answer. I'm not sure that merits shame. We need to prove otherwise to make the claim your making. I'm not saying you're wrong, but we couldn't make the claim without backing it up. I've yet to prove that Ann Robinson is a current and trusted adviser to the governor. But, the administration is now on record on this issue as of Sept. 14. If new details emerge, we can come back to that comment and challenge them for there. Thanks for reading! I enjoy your work.
    -Eric Russell

  4. Eric - Thanks for commenting; your paper is the best daily in the state, so the quality of your reporting is especially important to civics here.

    You've left readers with a false impression on a central point: the possible relationship between the governor's legislative agenda and ALEC's corporate membership. Your story makes it sound like she was never an advisor, and fails to make clear that it is indisputable that she was one during the period in which much of the governor's agenda for the past session was created. With due respect, that is shameful.

    I'm at a loss as to what "claim" I've made needs further evidence. If your point is that the governor's office no longer considers Robinson an advisor, that's a brand new development that needs follow-up. Obvious questions: when and why did she cease her advisory role? How long has she been affiliated with ALEC? Does the governor's office consider this affiliation to represent a conflict of interest? Is the revelation that she's the new state co-chair of ALEC the reason for her change of status?

    These are not minor points in a story about the influence of ALEC in Augusta, but rather central ones. (I would have asked them, but the governor's office wouldn't speak to me about this issue.)


  5. Colin,
    Noted. This story ALEC was not the entire bite of the apple. I don't think I glossed over Robinson's relationship with the governor, but you're right, if that role has changed recently, it begs the question: Why? The ALEC connection may have something to do with it.
    Thanks for reading our paper and for referring to us as the best daily in the state. But we can and should be better and that's always my goal. So keep the comments coming!


  6. Eric -

    Fair enough. I suspect all of this will be worthy of your follow-up.


  7. Alex:

    Bragdon withdrew his ethics complaint regarding Erick Bennett in early June. I'll update my post in that regard.

  8. Speaking of ALEC, did you see that we Maine taxpayers footed the bill for Majority Whip Andre Cushing III to attend their annual meeting?