By John Richardson, Portland Press Herald Writer
Maine’s former environmental commissioner put a hold on a violation notice against a Jay paper mill to try to win support from a legislator who also works as the mill’s environmental manager, according to internal state records.
Documents released this week, including memos and handwritten notes, confirm that the two discussed the violation deal around the end of 2003. However, the papers do not explain whether Rep. Thomas Saviello asked for the favor or Dawn Gallagher, the former commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, offered it. Each says it was the other’s idea.
Gallagher resigned from her job last month, the same day the Lewiston Sun Journal quoted her saying, “There was no deal. . . . To infer that there was somehow an agreement that we would not send a violation or notice of warning in return for doing something else is not true.”>/p>
The records show, however, that Gallagher withheld the violation notice, at least temporarily, to get Saviello’s support on a DEP proposal to clean up the Androscoggin River. “It was a mistake to do it,” Gallagher said during an interview Wednesday.
Gallagher maintained that her denial was true because the deal ultimately did not take place. She blamed a miscommunication for the fact that the violation notice never got sent even after the deal fell apart.
The documents shed more light on the reasons behind Gallagher’s resignation and are sure to intensify questions about Saviello’s influence within the DEP and his role in the Legislature. Saviello, an independent from Wilton, sits on the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee, the panel that oversees the agency and shapes environmental legislation.
Saviello said on Wednesday that he did nothing wrong and that he rejected an offer by Gallagher to withhold the violation notice in exchange for his vote. “I said, ‘I cannot. They’re separate,’s ” he said.
The latest DEP records were made available in response to requests from media and others under the Maine Freedom of Access Act.
DEP officials inspected the International Paper mill in October 2003 and found numerous violations. A machine that crushes lightbulbs contained mercury bulbs that were supposed to be kept intact and recycled, for example, according to the inspection reports.
The DEP inspector wrote up a routine notice of violation. It demanded that the problems be corrected but did not propose any fine. While the violations were addressed, the notice was put on hold and never sent.
Saviello, who is in charge of compliance with environmental rules at the plant, met with Gallagher and others in December 2003 to discuss issues raised during the inspection, as well as the DEP’s efforts to clean up the Androscoggin River below the mill. It was unusual to meet with a company’s representative over violations as routine as those found during the IP inspection, Gallagher said Wednesday.
In February, 2004, Gallagher called Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management Director Steve Davis to ask whether the violation notice had been sent and to explore the potential for holding up the notice, according to Davis’s notes.
Gallagher told Davis there is a “legislative issue at stake. . . . Can we not send – trade?”>/p>
Davis replied that he would check, according to his notes, and underlined the question, “legal?”>/p>
In an internal memo that Gallagher wrote last month for then-Deputy Commissioner David Littell, she described her memory of the deal and how it fell through when Saviello did not get what he wanted on the river cleanup.
“Further recollection and conferring with others,” she wrote, “vaguely recall that December meeting with Tom where he said he wouldn’t support our (legislation on the river cleanup) unless violations dropped. I checked into this to see what discretion we had legally; we had a lot. Steve (Davis) said he would check into whether letter sent and if not, tell them to hold off.”>/p>
“Issue brought up with Tom (Saviello). Don’t remember all the details. Last recollection was in the hallway outside the (Natural Resources) Committee when Tom stormed out. Told him we’d done everything we could; he said not enough, send (violation) letter.”>/p>
The notice of violation had been downgraded to a letter of warning, and never was sent, the records show.
The violation notice became somewhat of an inside joke at the DEP. One inspector’s monthly log tracked its lack of progress from October 2003 through April 2004, at one point writing that it was “in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan.”>/p>
Gallagher said Wednesday that it was wrong to attempt a trade. At the time, she said, she was balancing her desire to clean up decades of contamination in the Androscoggin River with the benefit of sending a violation notice to a single mill.
Gallagher said she can’t remember exactly how the deal to trade Saviello’s support for holding up the notice was proposed, but that Saviello clearly made the connection during the meeting in December two years ago. “I know that he implied it, at least,” she said.
Saviello said it was Gallagher who first proposed the trade during a follow-up meeting in January 2004. He said Gallagher brought up the idea informally a couple more times after January and that he rejected it then, too.
Environmentalists say the controversy shows why Saviello’s job at the paper mill should keep him off the Natural Resources Committee.
“That is a negotiation that never should have happened, and the only reason it happened is that (Saviello) sits on that committee and he has power over other decisions involving the department,” said Steve Hinchman, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation. “The temptation to make trade-offs will always be there.”>/p>
House Speaker John Richardson issued a statement Wednesday saying he has talked to Saviello about the accusations of undue influence and conflicts of interest but that there is no reason to remove him from the committee.
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org