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Energy group funded via state agency hired Democratic lawmakers, activists

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Energy group funded via state agency hired Democratic lawmakers, activists

HALLOWELL — The Maine Green Energy Alliance, which last week announced it was returning the balance of its $1.1 million government contract to promote home retrofits after it had fallen well behind its goals, says it is a non-partisan organization.

But an examination of the Hallowell-based group by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting shows that of its 13-member staff, seven have or had strong connections to the Democratic Party, including being members of the Legislature.

This finding comes a week after the center’s research revealed that the alliance got its grant with the help of Democratic Gov. John Baldacci and was founded by Baldacci’s former counsel, also a well-connected Democrat.

The seven staff members are:

• Former Rep. Steve Butterfield, who was a Democratic House member representing Bangor and running for re-election when he was hired in August 2010 as a process facilitator. He was not re-elected.

• Former Rep. Jim Martin, who was a Democratic House member representing Orono and running for re-election when he was hired as a process facilitator. He was not re-elected.

• Shelby Wright, who was a Democratic candidate for the House from Hampden when she was hired in July 2010 to be a community outreach coordinator. She lost the election.

• Rep. Melissa Walsh Innes, a Democratic House member from Yarmouth, won election to a second term in the House in November and was hired as community outreach coordinator in January.

• Gabrielle Berube worked as the “traveling aide” for Democrat Libby Mitchell during the gubernatorial campaign and prior to that for the Democratic Party. Berube was hired as a process facilitator in late December.

• Tom Battin was director of information technology for the Obama campaign in Maine and gave at least $4,900 to the Obama campaign and national Democratic Party between 2008 and 2011. He was hired as a field organizer in August 2010.

• Jed Rathband was among a group of self-described “Democratic activists” who started Donkey Card, a discounted home heating oil buying service whose proceeds in part went to fund “Dem Corps,” described on its website as “a group of concerned Democratic activists, progressive community leaders and local business owners ...” He was brought on as a contractor in September and put on staff in November.

Also, Executive Director Seth Murray donated $320 to the Maine Democratic State Committee a few weeks before he began working at the alliance in early June, 2010. Murray also donated $2,300 to the Obama campaign in 2008 and $500 to Democratic U. S. Rep. Chellie Pingree in 2007.

“We are a nonpartisan organization,” Murray said. “I can tell you straight up, I’m the one who made the hiring decisions, and I’m not at all influenced by that kind of factor. For me, it’s who’s going to be doing the best job.”

Murray declined to identify the staff members; the center identified the staff through public records.

There are three more outreach staff members, but the center has been unable to determine their identities. Murray said, “I do know that one of them has worked on political campaigns in addition to their community organizing experience.”

The alliance, which got the no-bid contract in August 2010, announced Jan. 28 that it was shutting down the program and handing back unspent money to the Maine agency, Efficiency Maine Trust, that had partnered with it on the federal stimulus grant.

That announcement came just before the center planned to publish an expose of the program. The center found that the alliance was headed by Baldacci’s former legal counsel, Tom Federle, and that a top Baldacci aide asked Efficiency Maine staff to include the alliance in a larger grant proposal to the federal Department of Energy, despite misgivings by some agency officials.

The center’s investigation also found that, nearly six months into its one-year contract , the alliance had only signed up 50 homes for weatherizing, far below its goal of 1,000.

Compensation for the alliance jobs ranged from $15 an hour for process facilitators to annual salaries between $30,000 and $40,000 for community outreach staff. Murray earned $80,000.

Murray said they usually had between 15 and 20 applicants for each position and that he led the interviews.

Martin did not return the center’s phone or e-mail messages. But other staffers who did respond were united in saying that they were hired for their skills, not their politics.

“We were all hired not because of our politics, but in spite of it,” Butterfield said.

“I believe that I was fully vetted for this position,” Innes said.

“I’ve never done a single thing for the Democratic Party,” Rathband said. “The idea of lumping me in as some sort of Democratic cabal is far-fetched.”

“I have worked diligently for the past seven months to educate community members,” Wright said.

Did employees at any point look at their colleagues and wonder at the high percentage of Democratic Party activists?

“Work is work,” Batten said. “I don’t pay attention to the person’s political views.”

“I never really considered the connection,” said Berube, the former Mitchell campaign staffer and longtime Democratic Party operative. “It was not different than other jobs I’ve had in the past.”

That’s precisely the problem, said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C., group that tracks the influence of money in politics.

“One has to wonder if this was a truly nonpartisan independent group that was working on behalf of lowering energy costs,” Levinthal said, “or if this was a political vehicle for the Democratic Party.

“If an organization such as this is stacked with people who are clearly very active in one party and members of a certain party, you might be scratching your head if you’re a Republican or independent.”

Efficiency Maine Executive Director Michael Stoddard said, “It’s really important that Mainers perceive Efficiency Maine programs as being totally nonpartisan because our mission is to lower everyone’s energy costs through impartially administered programs. So, it’s unfortunate if a particular contract ends up appearing heavily partisan, one way or another.”

Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, said that he has asked that Efficiency Maine staff appear before the committee to discuss the alliance contract.

Naomi Schalit is the executive director and senior reporter for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. She can be reached at mainecenter@gmail.com or at pinetreewatchdog.org.