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Brunswick legislator's opinion column shares lobbying-group roots

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Brunswick legislator's opinion column shares lobbying-group roots

BRUNSWICK — A national lobbying group is the source of similar passages in a pair of opinion pieces about national security and energy production written by two different authors, one in Maine and the other Florida, though neither cited the source.

An anonymous e-mail provided links to both columns to the Lewiston Sun Journal.

Maine Rep. Alexander Cornell du Houx, D-Brunswick, who submitted his op-ed piece to the Portland Press Herald, said he had received talking points from the group Americans United for Change, a progressive political organization based in Washington, D.C.

The other column ran in the Orlando Sentinel on Aug. 5 and was written by Donald L. Kerrick of Jupiter, Fla., according to the Sentinel. Cornell du Houx's piece ran Aug. 27 in the Portland Press Herald.

"Just as a speechwriter writing a speech, I had someone go through and write it and then I read through it, edited it and then I submitted it," Cornell du Houx said. "I assumed that everything in there was something original."

When asked if it was originally from himself, Cornell du Houx said, "You mean actually physically writing it myself? The actual words and text? I had help writing it from Frank (Gallagher)."

Gallagher is the Maine state director for Americans United for Change.

"I look for ways to advance the message on any number of policy issues," Gallagher said, adding he initiated contact with Cornell du Houx. "A lot of the materials will come from the national organization and then we'll tailor them to fit the circumstances as they exist in the specific state we're dealing with."

Cornell du Houx, a first-term legislator and war veteran, said he also works at the Truman National Security Project on issues of national security and energy. He said the facts found in his column are commonly used by many groups.

"I'm not surprised that those facts are the same. What I am concerned with is that the information like some of the text was similar," he said. "I'm definitely going to investigate further."

Gallagher said the practice is "quite common."

"Every national organization does exactly this - I'm mystified as to why that's a story," he said.

But Bob Steele, a former Maine journalist who is the senior faculty in Ethics at The Poynter Institute, said just because other people do it, doesn't make it right.

"Whether it's a politician who is writing an op-ed or it's a business person making a speech at a conference, you should not claim as your own the language and ideas of others; you're suggesting that your thoughts are original if you don't give proper credit to others, and ethically that's not right," he said.

Steele said general facts and common phrases are often used acceptably without attribution.

"But in a case like this, I would think first of all, elected representatives get a fair amount of content from special interest groups and it is unwise and maybe even naïve to think that it's only coming to you. And even so, you should give proper attribution for specific language that you're using, particularly if it's extensive," he said.

M.D. Harmon, an editorial writer at the Portland Press Herald who edits opinion submissions, said he receives op-eds, verifies the author is the person identified and then prints them.

"An organization will tell its supporters, 'please write letters to the editor on this issue.' That's fine, we take every one of those letters we get. But when the organization says, 'please write this (specific) letter to the editor on this issue,' that's astro-turfing and when we discover it we stop printing those," he said, adding that if he had known a similar column had run somewhere else, he probably wouldn't have printed it.

Cornell du Houx said in the future he would be much more thorough with submissions.

"Any op-eds I write will be thoroughly vetted and researched to ensure that everything is 100 percent original," he said.

Rebekah Metzler can be reached at rmetzler@sunjournal.com