Attorney General Steven Rowe was obliged to find that the Department of Environmental Protection broke the law by allowing a paper company to retain all records of a side agreement to a pollution permit.
There is no question the DEP was conducting governmental business. There is no exception in the Freedom of Access law that excludes drafts of a legally enforceable agreement from disclosure. Drafts prepared by officials of Rumford Paper Co. and presented to the DEP were public records. So were notes DEP staff scrawled on them.
“By not keeping those documents, DEP staff attempted to avoid the creation of a public record that would be open to public inspection,” Rowe said.
What is puzzling is Rowe’s determination that the violation was not “willful” and therefore no enforcement action is required. The actions of DEP staff, including Bureau of Land and Water Quality director Andrew Fiske, clearly meets the plain language of this definition.
Rowe accepts the staff’s questionable assertions that they did not know that drafts were public records.
This does not pass the smell test – not even close.
Rowe’s report did lay to rest any question of impropriety involving a similar negotiation with International Paper Co.. That company provided documents when asked by environmentalists challenging a new pollution permit.
Gov. Baldacci, predictably, ordered up some records act training. No one will be fired. No one will be demoted.
The bottom line is the public interest got shafted in this attempt to negotiate a sweetheart deal with one of the longest-running polluters of the sadly abused Androscoggin River.
Fortunately, Acting DEP Commissioner David Littel scrapped the permits in question. Now perhaps the public will be able to watch as the DEP conducts the public’s business.