- Associated Press - Sunday, April 30, 2017

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - The governor’s pick for the public’s chief advocate for utility customers has a history of ties with the wireless and telecommunications industry, from thousands of dollars in political contributions, to a stint lobbying for AT&T.;

Republican Gov. Paul LePage says that Barry Hobbins, a Democrat, will serve the interests of public utility customers, and not special interests, before the Maine Public Utilities Commission, federal regulators and state Legislature. The governor has said it was the “worst, worst decision” to pick current Public Advocate Tim Schneider, who worked on a solar bill that LePage vetoed last year.

“That’s what the public advocate job is: to represent the ratepayer, not to represent a special interest,” LePage told reporters at a recent press conference. LePage’s office said there are no issues with Hobbins’s nomination, which they vetted with the state ethics commission.

Jonathan Wayne, the commission’s executive director, said in an email to LePage’s office that he didn’t see “any problems” in terms of ethics laws. He said Hobbins would be able to lobby legislative officials and the executive branch as public advocate despite having served as a representative in a term ending last year.

Hobbins says his ties to the telecommunications industry never influenced his legislative work and won’t if he becomes public advocate. He plans to divest investments like wind company stock.

“I don’t think it has any bearing on my qualifications,” he said. “In fact, it means I’m better educated than most in different areas of expertise.”

LePage’s nomination of Hobbins is set for a legislative hearing on May 9, and Hobbins says he’s asked Schneider, whose four-year term expires in May, to stay on during the transition. The next step would be a Senate vote.

The nomination of Hobbins - a lawyer, top Democratic fundraiser and former legislative leader with 26 years of experience - comes as lawmakers once again work to expand access to high-speed internet throughout the rural state. Maine’s largest broadband provider, Charter Communications, which recently acquired Time Warner Cable, has lobbied against such bills.

“There are countless examples of government getting into the business of providing broadband, with taxpayers footing the bill, only to end in failure with mountains of debt,” said lobbyist Tom Federle, the former treasurer of a political action committee controlled by Hobbins, in recent testimony. Hobbins recently dissolved the leadership PAC, which since 2009 has reported raising more than $30,000 from telecommunications companies like Time Warner Cable and AT&T;, an industry association and Federle’s firm.

“I think there’s no question that Mr. Hobbins has had close ties to important interests in telecommunications and in energy as an elected official,” said Democratic Rep. Seth Berry, the House chair of the Legislature’s joint standing committee on energy, utilities and technology. He said he believes Hobbins understands “that he’s taking on a different job and will be serving the interests of ratepayers above all else.”

According to disclosure statements reviewed by The Associated Press, Hobbins since 2009 has reported receiving gifts like lodging and conference costs from Time Warner and telecommunications industry groups. In 2013 and 2015, Hobbins attended “winter policy conferences” that Time Warner reported respectively cost $5,300 and $8,257.

Hobbins has represented AT&T; in cell tower permitting issues. He said after temporarily leaving the Legislature in 1990, he was registered for several years as a part-time lobbyist for Vanguard Cellular, which was acquired by AT&T; in 1999.

Republicans and Democrats roundly call Hobbins an “old-school” Democrat who’ll succeed in a role that requires much technical know-how. “He’s knowledgeable and able to work across the aisle and work with people,” said Republican Rep. Lance Harvell, a member of the energy, utilities and technology committee.

LePage and Hobbins have butted heads on energy policy, with LePage in 2014 vetoing a solar bill co-sponsored by Hobbins. Fellow committee member, Democratic Rep. Deane Rykerson, said the governor may want “a legacy that’s not of total divisiveness, but actually of some cooperation.”

Hobbins lost a primary fight last year to Democratic Sen. Justin Chenette, who told The AP he has the “utmost respect” for Hobbins and hopes for a “successful nomination.”

But Chenette said “reforms need to take place in the entire system” and said he has bills pending to ban legislators from operating PACs and to ban lobbyist contributions to lawmakers.

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