- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - The outgoing member of the Public Utilities Commission is concerned that the independent panel is being used as a “political arm” of Republican Gov. Paul LePage to thwart wind power contracts, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Access Act request.

The documents shed light on the conflict between Commissioner David Littell, a holdover from former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci’s era, and Chairman Mark Vannoy, a LePage appointee who took the reins in January and promptly pushed to reconsider two long-term wind power contracts that the three-member panel had already approved.

Littell, whose term ended in March but stayed on while a replacement was sought, questioned the panel’s independence and suggested the wind power contract flip-flop would hurt its standing.

“The commission is a quasi-judicial body, not a political arm of the governor. I can see no reason why companies dealing with this commission will trust that their proposals will be considered on the merits. This is going to further hurt Maine’s standing with the commercial community,” Littell wrote in a February email to PUC staffer Stuart O’Brien, expressing his opposition to the move.

Commissioner Carlie McLean, who was also appointed by LePage, joined Vannoy in voting to reconsider the contracts about a week later. The commission’s decision to reopen the negotiations prompted SunEdison to withdraw its proposal for a long-term contract for a project in Hancock County.

Concerns over the possible politicization of what’s traditionally an independent panel has spilled over in the Legislature, where a committee delayed a vote on LePage’s selection of Bruce Williamson, a University of Tennessee economist, to replace Littell on the commission.

The committee is expected to vote on Williamson’s nomination on Thursday. At least one Democrat - Assistant Senate Minority Leader Dawn Hill - plans to vote against his nomination. She said Wednesday that she wasn’t sure he’s the right fit for the commission and questioned the need to bring someone in from out of state for the job.

Democrats previously accused LePage of meddling in the PUC’s dealings with Norwegian company Statoil, which withdrew from an offshore wind pilot program.

Hill filed a public records request last week for all documents detailing communication between the governor’s office and commissioners. In her request, she said “there’s an indication that perhaps some coordination and collaboration has occurred … leading to undue influence.”

LePage fired back that he’s “appalled and disgusted” at the suggestion that he has attempted to control the commission.

“I have never, ever called or had any conversations with the PUC about any of their work,” he said on the George Hale and Ric Tyler show Tuesday. “I have never, ever tried to influence any agency or anybody. I am a hands-off governor. This is how I operate.”

But Vannoy’s calendar, which was obtained by the AP through the public records request, shows that the chairman met with the governor to discuss the long-term contracts on Jan. 30, less than a month before the commission voted to reconsider the projects.

Vannoy said in an interview that he updated the governor on where the cases stood and on the process going forward. He said that meetings with the governor and lawmakers - which are strictly limited to discussing process and not the details of specific cases - are appropriate and not historically unusual. LePage didn’t try to influence the commission’s decision, he said.

“If I felt that the governor was trying to influence my decision on any matters before the PUC I wouldn’t stay in this job because I’m not interested in violating the trust and confidence of the Maine people and the independence of the Maine PUC,” he said.

Hill said she finds such meetings between commissioners and the governor troubling and unnecessary.

The governor “is a very strong personality, he has very strong ideals and why would he need to have a one-on-one with them?” Hill said. There are many other ways that the governor can be updated about commission matters “without having to have a direct conversation with them which can only be an attempt to influence, as opposed to update,” she said.

Last month, Littell and McLean voted to move forward with the remaining wind contract on the table. Vannoy opposed the decision.

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Follow Alanna Durkin at http://www.twitter.com/aedurkin

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