Wind backers decry conflict-of-interest claims

By Tux Turkel, Staff Writer, Portland Press Herald

 As  Maine rushes to embrace wind power, unnamed critics posting on Internet sites and reader comment pages contend that money and political connections — reaching all the way to the governor’s office — are greasing the skids.

A repeated theme, for instance, focuses on Gov. John Baldacci and Kurt Adams, former chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Adams served as Baldacci’s chief counsel. The governor appointed him chairman of the PUC in 2005. Adams left in 2008 to be a top executive at First Wind, the state’s most active wind-power developer. Posters allege that Adams has since benefited from his connections with Baldacci to gain permits and generous taxpayer subsidies for big wind projects.

The charge has become more persistent over the past year, as the pace of energy development has picked up in Maine, fueled by federal stimulus money, efforts to cut reliance on oil and strong support for renewable energy by both Baldacci and President Obama. But in interviews with the Maine Sunday Telegram, Adams and a spokesman for Baldacci say their conduct has been legal and appropriate, and that organized opponents of wind development are using innuendo to influence public opinion.

The connections aren’t secret, they say, and the charges lack specific — or accurate — accounts of any wrongdoing. “Opponents are using a modern-day whisper campaign to discredit policies they don’t agree with,” said David Farmer, Baldacci’s deputy chief of staff.

These tactics are defended by Brad Blake, a spokesman for the Citizens’ Task Force on Wind Power, a Maine group fighting industrial wind projects. A Cape Elizabeth resident with a camp near Lincoln, where First Wind proposes a wind farm, Blake last month posted an online comment following a story on wind power in the Bangor Daily News. “How about equal amount of space to exposing the corrupt relationships that are driving this folloy (sic) in Maine: Baldacci-Kurt Adams-First Wind. Juliet Browne (First Wind lawyer) — her husband, Rep. Jon Hinck — expedited wind permitting law. Larry Summers — D.E. Shaw-First Wind — Obama’s $40.4 million gift to rescue Stetson II. Ad nauseum (sic)!”

Blake’s posting, which he made under his real name, was similar to others circulated on the Internet, chiefly by unnamed commenters. His posting was later copied to another Web site and repeated by another poster. In a recent interview, Blake acknowledged he isn’t able to document any illegal activity. But he said his goal is to draw attention to the wind industry’s ambitions to install hundreds of turbines in Maine, and the officials who appear to be promoting the agenda. “There’s a lot of I-help-you, you-help-me maneuvering behind the scenes, between people who want to move things in a certain direction,” he said.

DEVELOPER: STIMULUS FUNDS OFFERED TO ALL

Both Farmer and Adams point out that Maine is a small state, where business and government leaders have access to one another and interests sometimes overlap. Some posters draw the First Wind genealogy more broadly, connecting Rep. Jon Hinck, D-Portland, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Utilities and Energy Committee, and his wife, Juliet Browne, a Portland lawyer who helps First Wind and other developers through the maze of the state’s permitting process.

In interviews, Hinck and Browne defended their conduct and said their actions present no conflict of interest. Even Lawrence Summers, a former treasury secretary who worked at an investor group that supports First Wind and now is President Obama’s economic adviser, is linked to what some see as the wind industry’s inside track in Maine.

The relationship between Adams and Baldacci has attracted the most scrutiny. Adams disputes that he has used his friendship with Baldacci to advance First Wind’s projects in Maine. As chief development officer, Adams said, he spends most of his time on new projects in Hawaii and the West. “First Wind has a Maine team that doesn’t need my help,” he said.

Adams said he took steps to avoid a conflict of interest when he left the PUC in 2008. The timing was bad. The agency was preparing to consider one of its biggest energy cases — the still-pending Central Maine Power transmission line upgrade request. But Adams and his family live in Yarmouth, next to CMP’s transmission corridor. His wife, also a lawyer, is fighting the expansion.

After receiving opinions from the attorney general and from his personal lawyer, Adams reluctantly concluded he couldn’t stay at the PUC without recusing himself from the CMP case. Long interested in renewable energy, he learned of a management opening at First Wind, was hired and was later promoted to his current position. Internet posters, he said, string together relationships to draw conclusions that aren’t supported by fact.

For instance: First Wind’s 57-megawatt project on Stetson Mountain in Washington County won $40 million in federal stimulus funds in September. Commenters call it a bailout for a project that’s not economically viable without taxpayer subsidies. They assume the project benefited through a relationship with Summers, director of Obama’s National Economic Council. Summers previously was a managing director at D.E. Shaw & Co., a global hedge fund that has a big financial stake in First Wind. But Adams said the stimulus money was available to any wind project that came on line during a certain time period. First Wind has said the $40 million will be reinvested in new projects.

Larry Summers tied to D.E.Shaw and First Wind

“That’s the way the stimulus act is supposed to work,” Adams said. The appearance of conflicts of interest is nothing new in Maine, he said, where many of the same people move between public service and private life. But Maine has a very transparent government, in Adams’ view, with a citizen Legislature and a permit process that allows plenty of public scrutiny.

He said he has come to take the online accusations in stride and no longer reads them regularly. “It’s a price you pay,” he said. “This is what public life in America is today.”

LEGISLATOR’S WIFE HAS WIND CLIENTS

Unproven charges are familiar to Hinck, the Portland lawmaker, and Browne, his wife, who heads the Verrill Dana law firm’s Environmental Law Group. Browne was appointed by Baldacci to a 2007 wind-power task force. The panel recommended rules that anti-wind activists say were rushed into law by Baldacci and the Legislature to make it easier for wind projects to be approved in certain areas. Hinck, as co-chair of the Utilities and Energy Committee, helped advance the agenda of his wife’s clients, they say.

This scenario ignores reality, Browne and Hinck say. With 13 years of experience working to gain permits for a natural gas pipeline and, most recently, four major wind-power projects, Browne said she had an important perspective to offer the task force. The panel included lawmakers, environmental groups and state agencies. This balanced makeup is typical of state task forces. “It was quite transparent,” Browne said. “I said what my experience was.”

Browne’s work typically brings her in contact with the legislative committee that handles natural resource issues, which Hinck doesn’t sit on. In this instance, the resulting bill came before the energy committee co-chaired by her husband. Hinck said he voted to support the bill but didn’t do any extraordinary lobbying on its behalf. Asked if he should have recused himself from voting, Hinck said that would have been appropriate only if his wife were going to benefit directly. “I don’t think it came anywhere close to being a conflict issue,” he said.

Either way, Hinck’s vote wasn’t decisive. The bill passed without opposition in both the House and Senate. Hinck was a co-founder of Greenpeace USA and a former project leader at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Most recently, he served on a broadly represented legislative task force that studied energy corridors in Maine.

“Opponents seem to have the notion that a task force should be made up of people with no interest in the business at hand,” he said. “I think that’s ridiculous.”

ACTIVIST: TACTICS BORN OF FRUSTRATION

This tension in not unique to small states, only more visible in places where people tend to know one another, according to Rushworth Kidder, president of the Institute for Global Ethics. Kidder, an author and ethicist who heads the nonpartisan think tank in Camden, said “networks of influence” are unavoidable at high levels of business and government. The solution is to manage conflicts of interest by being as transparent as possible about potential conflicts.

Kidder wasn’t aware of the wind-power cronyism charges. But in general, he said, accomplished people who are busy doing what they think is right in their jobs tend to have a blind spot to potential conflicts. “The last person to see it’s a conflict of interest is often the actor himself,” he said. It’s the appearance of these conflicts, real or not, that continues to feed various Web sites, including the Citizens’ Task Force on Wind Power — Maine, at www.windtaskforce.org/, and the Industrial Wind Action Group, at www.windaction.org.

The sites attract opponents of the noise, visual impact and environmental changes associated with major wind projects. But even within these social communities, not everyone agrees that “connecting the dots” is productive, according to Steve Thurston, a Vermont resident and co-chairman of the Citizens’ Task Force on Wind Power.

“I don’t think it helps to accuse people of malfeasance, unless you can prove what you’re saying,” Thurston said. Thurston has a family camp on Roxbury Pond near Rumford, near where a company led by former Gov. Angus King is planning a wind farm. Frustration leads opponents to connect public officials who seem complicit in a policy that, as Thurston sees it, will destroy the state’s mountain landscapes. “It feels like a freight train,” he said. “No matter what you do to put the brakes on, it just keeps going.” Read more  here.

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