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Union organizer found role in candidate Richardson’s state agency

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Union organizer found role in candidate Richardson’s state agency

Editor’s note: This examination of Democrat John Richardson by the non-profit Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is the second in a series probing the records of some of the leading candidates for governor. The first was about GOP candidate Les Otten.

AUGUSTA — John Richardson’s first day on the job as commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community development was Jan. 22, 2007.

It was also the first day on the job for the department’s new acting project officer for business development: James “Jimmy” Cook.

They have a lot in common.

Both are Democrats.

Both have strong ties to organized labor, traditional supporters of Democrats.

And both got their jobs through Democratic Gov. John Baldacci.

Baldacci appointed Richardson to the $107,000-per-year job as commissioner of a department responsible for improving business and tourism in the state after Richardson completed his maximum four terms in the legislature, the last as speaker of the house. The Brunswick resident and lawyer has specialized in representing unions in contract negotiations.

The DECD commissioner job kept Richardson in the public eye for nearly three years, setting him up for his current run for the Democratic nomination for governor in the June 8 primary.

At his side for almost two years was Cook, a former political organizer for the Teamsters union and for Democratic causes, including being a paid staffer on Baldacci’s re-election campaign. Unofficially and later on an official basis, Cook kept Richardson informed and in touch with organized labor.

Cook got his $49,000-per-year acting position in DECD after Baldacci’s office asked the department to consider Cook for a job, according to Richardson.

Without a college degree and with the bulk of his experience as a political organizer and UPS shop steward and truck driver, Cook still ended up having three state jobs – two under Richardson and one for Baldacci – that paid him nearly $143,000 in salary and benefits over 19 months in 2007-2008.

How and why he got state jobs where he did not appear to meet the minimum requirements is a case history in the influence and importance of organized labor in state government and Democratic Party politics, including Richardson’s gubernatorial ambitions.

The governor and the Teamster

Cook’s first job in state government was with Baldacci, but it set Cook up to work in Democratic campaigns and later in Richardson’s department.

In 2006, Baldacci created the Office of Development and Re-employment within the governor’s office to coordinate the future use of the soon-to-close Brunswick Naval Air Station.

Documents provided to the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting in response to a Freedom of Information Act request show that the governor used his executive prerogative to hire Cook for that office without posting or advertising for the position and at a pay grade above what was originally intended.

The job description is for an administrative secretary with a pay range of $543 to $716 per week. But the governor changed the title to “assistant to the director,” raising the weekly salary to $947.

David Farmer, Baldacci’s deputy chief of staff, said, “Certainly, the skills that Mr. Cook developed in his role with the union was considered ... and labor plays a critical role in the redevelopment of the Mid-Coast region after the closing of BNAS. But Cook was hired to work for the governor and represent the administration, not to represent an outside entity.”

Baldacci was already familiar with fellow Bangor native Cook when he gave him the state job.

“The governor has known Cook through his work with the Teamsters and other political activities for many years,” Farmer said.

About two weeks after Cook left the Brunswick air station role, he was hired by the Baldacci campaign as an $800-per-week “field staff-assistant to the governor.”

When the campaign was over, Cook immediately moved into the governor’s inaugural committee as an “organizing specialist,” also for $800 per week.

When that job was over, the governor’s office made the call to DECD and Cook became an acting project development officer at the agency where Baldacci had just made Richardson commissioner.

Cook could not be reached for comments. Two phone messages were left on his cell phone and a message was sent to him via his Facebook page.

The memo

The process that landed Cook his job in DECD demonstrates how the state hiring system can be used to put friends and political allies in good-paying jobs.

According to the state’s job description, the minimum requirements for Cook's project officer job are a “bachelor’s degree in business administration, accounting, economics, or a related field and two years experience in banking, economic development, public relations, sales or a related area. Equivalent related experience may be substituted for education on a year-for-year basis.”

But Cook’s primary work experience was as a field and political organizer for the Teamsters union in Maine and before that as a shop steward and truck driver at United Parcel Service. And his education consists of graduating from John Bapst High School in Bangor and attending the University of Maine “off and on,” according to the school spokesman. On his application to the state, he lists “asian history” as his major.

The Center asked the state for the documentation that authorized Cook’s hiring into DECD. The sole document provided was a hand-written note on a memo pad with the name of then deputy director of DECD, Thaxter Trafton (the current commissioner).

The memo stated: “effective 1/22/07 James Cook Grade 24 Step 8 (1360000141) $47,964.80.”

As to Cook’s qualifications in comparison with the job’s education and work experience requirement, Brian Hodges, a DECD deputy commissioner, referred to the state policy on acting appointments. However, even that policy states that acting appointments must meet the minimum requirements.

Hodges also cited Cook’s University of Maine record, such as a minor in speech communication, and his experience with the Teamsters, the six months with the redevelopment office and his work on the Baldacci campaign as justification for the hiring.

On the other hand, Richardson said Cook was not qualified for the job.

While Cook was filling the DECD on an acting basis, Richardson said “he interviewed for the (permanent) job and he was not qualified for the job. I made sure we followed the rules,” Richardson said.

Richardson said he didn’t ask that Cook be brought into the department.

“The governor’s office had a list of people and asked if they would be qualified for anything and, yes, he (Cook) was one of the names,” Richardson said.

The Center asked Farmer, the governor’s spokesman, if the governor helped Cook get his position with DECD.

The reply: “ ... the governor was supportive of the decision to hire him.”

Cook worked about 11 months in the office of business development and then was transferred with Richardson’s authorization to a tourism job, also a Level 24 position with similar pay.

Cook was replaced in his first job by Judith Bielecki, who applied and got the position on a full-time, not temporary, status. In contrast to Cook’s qualifications, Bielecki, who is still in that position, holds a bachelor's degree from Tufts University and a master’s degree from Harvard University and was the executive director of a museum.

She was in a DECD tourism job when Richardson and Cook arrived at the department.

She said she observed that Cook didn’t do much of the work usually assigned to the project officer job, which consists primarily of reviewing and analyzing the applications for Pine Tree Development Zone status, a Baldacci program designed to encourage business expansion through tax breaks.

'Jimmy is picking up Malibu'

That work was done by others on the staff, she said, while she observed that Cook “was in and out. We knew he was driving the commissioner,” she said.

In an attempt to find supporting records, the Center reviewed e-mail between Richardson and Cook and Richardson’s calendar and other documents. The center also requested Cook’s calendar, but the state said the cost of retrieving those records from an electronic database would be as much as $1,000 above the $200 that the Center had already paid for other documents. That request is on hold due to the cost.

However, Richardson’s calendar and the e-mail between the two revealed the following:

On three occasions that were recorded, Cook was assigned to take care of Richardson’s car. One example: the April 2, 2007, calendar entry states “FYI – Jimmy is picking up Malibu for you to use until new car comes in.”

The e-mails between the two suggest Cook was giving special attention to Richardson’s relationship with labor, although that is not part of his job description.

On July 25 and Oct. 31, 2007, and Jan. 3, Aug 10, Feb. 4. and Feb. 5, 2008, Cook and Richardson e-mailed about union matters.

In one, Cook told Richardson, “Check this out! You may want to attend this one!!!” Attached is an announcement of an event from the Maine Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.

Another time, Cook used the e-mail system to set up a lunch with Richardson and an officer of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1253.

He also suggested union events Richardson should attend.

The e-mails reveal a casual relationship between a state commissioner and one of his employees. This is the full text of an e-mail sent to Richardson from Cook on Sept. 6, 2007, with the subject line “S.O.B.s”:

“You, Dugay, Nappi and company! You can all go jump in the that river while I dance with my new. (sic) Sugar mama from AARP. My new senior rich lady is in here somewhere I know it. When I find her I will be moving to Boca into her new retirement community as her boy-toy and won’t be returning to work. Joke is on you guys now. Fraternally,”.

Richardson said he always did his own driving.

“Have to laugh about that,” he said. ‘Everyone knows I’m such a control freak, I drive everywhere.”

As for having Cook pick up his car or take it in for servicing, Richardson said there was very little help for that sort of chore in his DECD at the time, so he asked Cook and others to to do this as a “matter of convenience.”

He said Cook was assigned to be a liaison with labor after DECD got a request from the state department of labor “and Jim had some experience in that area.”

When Cook was in his business development area, the department had an unexpected vacancy in the tourism area and suddenly needed someone to go to a trade show in Boston. Cook filled in, said Richardson, and did “a fabulous job” and eventually got a permanent position in tourism.

Cook’s a “people person, very gregarious. He had a talent for tourism,” Richardson said.

After about six months in the tourism job, Cook accepted a voluntary cost savings leave and then resigned effective Jan. 2, 2009.

Richardson said he was told Cook then went to work for the state employees' union. The person who answered the phone at the Maine State Employees Association office said Cook had worked there, but had left to work on Richardson’s campaign.

Richardson said Cook is neither a paid staff member nor unpaid volunteer for him.

However, Cook remains a fan of the commissioner’s bid to be governor. He has given a “thumbs up” six times to postings on Richardson’s campaign Facebook page.

Labor vote

Bielecki recalled that the day Richardson and Cook started at DECD, “everyone in the department said the same thing: ‘Jimmy’s here to get John Richardson the labor vote when he runs for governor.’”

Less than three years later, Richardson resigned as commissioner to run for governor.

And another prediction of Bielecki and her co-workers was also on target: Richardson has already garnered four union endorsements. According to their Web sites, the other four Democratic candidates have no union endorsements.

John Christie is publisher and senior reporter of the Maine Center for Pubic Interest Reporting, a non-profit and nonpartisan journalism organization that provides in-depth reporting as a public service to its Maine media partners. The e-mail address is mainecenter@gmail.com. The Web site is pinetreewatchdog.org.

Disclosure: Christie was publisher of the Morning Sentinel newspaper when John Richardson represented the newsroom union in contract negotiations.