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Citizens group asks Maine AG for probe of former PUC chairman

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Citizens group asks Maine AG for probe of former PUC chairman

AUGUSTA — A citizens group has asked Maine’s attorney general to investigate former Public Utilities Commission Chairman Kurt Adams after revelations that Adams accepted a grant of “equity units” in a wind power company while he chaired the PUC.

Adams left the commission in May 2008 to go to work as senior vice president for the company, First Wind, and said the equity units “had no value at all” and thus should not trigger state conflict of interest or improper gift laws.

The spokeswoman for Attorney General Janet Mills left open the possibility that Mills' office is taking up the Adams case.

Kate Simmons at first said her office does not comment on current investigations. Asked, “There is no investigation yet?“ Simmons replied, “How do you know?”

Steve Thurston, a part-time resident of Roxbury, and Monique Aniel of Mexico, co-chairs of the Citizens Task Force on Wind Power, wrote to Mills requesting the investigation. After the grant of equity shares to Adams was revealed recently by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, Thurston said he felt he had to act.

“This is troubling to me,” he said. “Somebody needs to get to the bottom of this, these issues need to be investigated.”

The center also learned this week that the revelations about Adams have prompted the company to review its hiring of him. Spokesman John Lamontagne said, “We are confident the review will conclude that the company and Mr. Adams acted properly.”

A recent First Wind filing with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission for 2009 shows Adams’ $1.3 million compensation included $315,000 in salary, $658,000 in stock awards, $29,000 of “other” compensation and $315,000 in “nonequity incentives.”

Another development in the case came to light when the center filed a Freedom of Access Act request for PUC records related to Adams’ dealings with wind power companies.

Those records appear to contradict Adams’ earlier statements about when he recused himself from matters concerning First Wind.

In an April interview, Adams said he had only negotiated with First Wind for a short time before he signed a contract with them in 2008. Adams told the Center that to ensure no conflicts occurred, “when I was at the PUC, I recused myself from anything related to First Wind from when I accepted employment to when I left.”

But there’s confusion about when Adams signed that contract: despite the fact that a First Wind filing with the SEC declared he had signed the contract in May 2008, both Adams and First Wind attorney Paul Wilson said that he signed the contract in April 2008. Wilson attributed the confusion to a “clerical error.”

The confusion continues: according to the documents recently obtained by the center, Adams actually began recusing himself from First Wind-related issues in December 2007.

During Adams’ tenure as PUC chairman, the agency took what veteran Washington, D.C., utilities attorney Greg Williams called an “unusual” intervention with federal regulators to help out First Wind’s Stetson Mountain wind farm. Stetson had been excluded by the regional transmission authority from a potentially lucrative power auction because of problems with transmission of its power, and the commission ultimately lodged a protest of that exclusion.

The PUC records obtained under the center’s request regarding that intervention show that staff and commissioners were discussing the issue in December 2007, more than four months before Adams said he signed a contract with First Wind and first recused himself.

In an e-mail dated Dec. 12, 2007, from Adams to staff attorney Lisa Fink – copied to commissioners Sharon Reishus and Vendean Vafiades – whose subject line is “RE: Stetson Wind – FCM letter from ISO,” Adams wrote: 

 “I am aware of a potential conflict that I have with this matter. It just popped up. Can you take me out of the loop on this for now? 

Thanks,

K” 

And during a Dec. 17, 2007, commission meeting, Adams recused himself from discussion about item No. 14 on the agenda, which is a discussion of the Stetson Wind case – and left the room.  The audio recording of the meeting was provided to the center.

“Now the record can reflect I’m leaving the bench,” Adams said. An unidentified female voice in the background of the digital recording said, “He says he’s got some kind of potential conflict.”

In neither of the two instances does Adams refer specifically to what the conflict could be.

PUC attorney Joanne Steneck said there is no written record of why Adams recused himself in the First Wind-related matters in December 2007.

Adams himself provided no guidance when asked about the two incidents.

“Kurt is unavailable for comment,” First Wind spokesman Lamontagne said.

The task force whose leaders filed the request for an investigation is an informal coalition of local groups, many of which are fighting wind power developments. Thurston’s great-grandfather built a camp on Roxbury Pond in 1925 that’s still owned by his family and he and others around the pond are battling a proposal from a company led by former Gov. Angus King to put turbines on the ridge surrounding the pond.

Naomi Schalit is the senior reporter of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism organization based in Hallowell. The center may be contacted at mainecenter@gmail.com. The website is pinetreewatchdog.org.