Monday, January 27, 2020

Stacey Abrams, in Maine, urges fight against voter suppression

Stacey Abrams, the Georgia legislator who narrowly lost a controversial gubernatorial race in 2018 to the man who organized the state's voter purge, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, was in Portland last week, speaking at the University of New England on the occasion of Martin Luther King, Jr. day.

She got into the race after spending years organizing to turn out African-American, Latino, and young voters and boosted their turnout massively. Meanwhile Kemp was engaging in what she describes as voter suppression, a challenge to democracy she urged the audience -- which included Gov. Janet Mills -- to help confront.

Read about it my story for the Portland Press Herald.

Monday, January 20, 2020

"Putin's Favorite Congressman" moves to Maine

Dana Rohrabacher is a surfing enthusiast, cannabis activist, and former Reagan speechwriter who once joined muhajadeeen to attack Russian targets and Afghanistan and arm wrestled a visiting bureaucrat named Vladimir Putin in a DC bar while representing Orange County, California for 15 terms in Congress. In recent years -- to the consternation of some of his fellow Cold Warriors -- he emerged as the most vociferous defender and apologist for Putin and Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban, a friend of British populist Nigel Farage, and a visitor to Julian Assange.

But after losing reelection in 2018, he declared he would be moving to Maine. Now, as I reported last week in the Maine Sunday Telegram, he's here, having moved his family to York full-time. He doesn't appear to be engaging in cannabis politics here in Maine -- where the newly legalized recreational marijuana industry is just getting going -- but he is backing a mentee of his, Republican 2nd District Congressional hopeful Eric Brakey, who I caught up with for the story.

I first became aware of Rohrabacher in 2015, when I was back in Hungary writing this POLITICO story on Orban.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Speaking on history of immigration in Maine, Portland, Jan. 18

Portland Ovations is convening a panel discussion on the history of immigration in Maine on January 18th at the Maine Historical Society in Portland, and I'm pleased to be taking part. It kicks off at 1pm and is free and open to the public.

Here's the description from Portland Ovations:

When we talk about immigration to Maine, we start with white settler-colonialism. What has been the impact of immigration on Maine’s land and people from the first French explorers in 1604 to the present? What are the drivers of recent immigration movements, and how does each new wave shift Maine’s economy and culture? What specific challenges do Maine’s environment and population pose for new arrivals; and how do we support Maine’s first peoples?


- Tilly Laskey, Curator of 'Holding Up The Sky' and Native art and culture specialist at, Maine Historical Society
- Alain Nahimana, Executive Director, The Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center
- Maulian Dana, Tribal Ambassador, Penobscot Nation
- Colin Woodard, Journalist, Author of American Nations and The Lobster Coast
- Moderator, Linda Nelson, Deputy Director, Portland Ovations and Bowdoin College graduate in American Studies.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Talking about the Don Gellers pardon with NPR

Late last fall my plane touched down at National Airport in Washington, I turned on my phone and there was an interview request from a reporter at NPR interested in the Don Gellers pardon story. I was able to drop by NPR headquarters and record an interview in person with Erin Slomski-Pritz, an NPR Storylab intern who, it turned out, was a Salt Institute for Documentary Studies graduate who had done her project on Dwayne Tomah's work to protect Passamaquoddy culture. She'd read about the Gellers case -- a state-sponsored conspiracy directed by the attorney general's office in the late 1960s to rid Maine of the tribe's all-too effective attorney -- and the pardon hearing.

This morning her piece ran on NPR's Morning Edition. Take a listen or enjoy the transcript.

Gellers received the first posthumous pardon in the state's history last week. His story was exposed in our 31-part Portland Press Herald series "Unsettled" in 2014, which concluded just months before he died.

The Israeli news agency JTA also took up the story today, with photo by my Press Herald colleague Greg Rec (via Getty Images.)

Friday, January 10, 2020

Don Gellers, victim of state sponsored conspiracy, receives full, posthumous pardon in Maine

In a 31-part Portland Press Herald series on the Passamaquoddy tribe's epic struggles with Maine, "Unsettled," I told the story of Donald Gellers, the idealistic young attorney who, in the 1960s, joined forces with Chief George Francis to challenge legal, civil rights, and material abuses of the tribe and its members by state officials, law enforcement, the courts, and local businesspeople. Upon returning home from filing a suit that sought redress for a $150 million trust fund and 10,000 acres of reserved land stolen by Maine -- the fund alone worth $1.1 billion in today's dollars -- he was arrested in a sting and raid that would be comic if its results were not so tragic and charged with "constructive possession" of six marijunaa cigarettes allegedly found in the pocket of a jacket in his upstairs closet.

The sordid case -- prosecuted by the head of the Attorney General's office criminal division, Dick Cohen, and his assistant, John Kelly -- resulted in a 2 to 4 year prison sentence and, most importantly, Gellers' disbarment in Maine, ending his ability to represent his clients. Gellers, with Cohen's tacit approval, fled to Israel, where the Justice Ministry found the case against him so absurd they admitted him to practice law without reservation. When he returned to New York in the 1980s -- now a rabbi -- U.S. federal courts did too.

On Tuesday -- five years after his death from cancer -- Gellers received a full pardon from Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a former Attorney General and career prosecutor who was overcome with emotion while outlining the litany of outrages connected with the state's prosecution. It is the first posthumous pardon known to have been issued in Maine's 200 year history, and also likely the only one to be granted on the grounds that the state had persecuted someone with bad intent. It is also likely to further the attempt to heal the rift between the state and Maine's tribes.

I attended the ceremony at the State House and wrote this dispatch for the Press Herald. I also covered the emotional October 2019 pardon hearing in Augusta, where Gellers' brother and leading tribal figures spoke out in his defense.

For a full accounting of the disturbing story of Gellers, the tribe, a horrific murder, the arrest, and the aftermath, please read the first thirteen chapters (and Chapter 29) of "Unsettled," which can be found here and is also available as a Press Herald e-book from Amazon, iTunes, or wherever you buy your electronic books. I also wrote this obituary after Gellers died.

I spoke with WCSH-6/WLBZ-2's NewsCenter Maine about Gellers' life on Tuesday evening. At available here. I also spoke with Susan Sharon of MainePublic. [Update, 1/15/20: NPR's "Morning Edition" did a story today as well.

The implicit, official censure of the state's behavior in the case is sobering for Maine's legal community, which in the late 1960s was extremely cozy. Many of the figures who participated in the prosecution were colleagues, mentors, or family members of people who are leading figures in the state's legal circles today. Judge William Silsby -- whose decisions during Gellers' 1970 hearing to be granted a new trial when evidence of a state conspiracy was uncovered will raise many eyebrows -- is  the father of Maine Superior Court Judge Herbert Silsby and grandfather of former US Attorney for Maine Paula Silsby. Attorney General James Erwin, where the proverbial buck stops, went on to be a two time Republican gubernatorial nominee, and his son is a prominent attorney who also served as Attorney General. Dick Cohen rose to become Attorney General, and Governor Mills herself worked for him for four years as a young assistant attorney general in the late 1970s; Cohen was appointed US Attorney by Ronald Reagan. John Kelly -- who arrested Gellers in Eastport and prosecuted the case with Cohen -- sits on Governor Mills' pardon board and, so, had to recuse himself.

“These 50 years have been very, very painful years,” Gellers told me a few months before his death, noting that his fugitive status had always hung over his head, waiting to be dropped on him by any opponent.

“It is a ‘Les Miserables’ story, and I am Jean Valjean,” he said, referring to the Victor Hugo novel. “It’s not simply a one-shot outrage, and when something like this is done it carries repercussions for life. These candlesticks are with me forever.”

He said he had never sought a pardon from a governor of Maine, and I asked whether he would ever want one. “Well, yes," he said. "Yes, that would be nice.”