Political payback after reporting on the money behind Maine education policy

Bowen and LePage – Christopher Cousins | BDN

Last week, Press Herald reporter Colin Woodard did exactly what a journalist is supposed to do. He tackled a complex issue – Maine’s evolving position on digital charter schools –  and followed a series of threads of money, power and policy to unravel and explain a complex tangle of corporate influence and potential political payback in state regulations.

A few days later, the Press Herald distilled and crystallized the evidence that Woodard had found into an editorial inveighing against the LePage administration’s actions.  They argued that private corporations should not be allowed to have so much influence in creating policies that would allow them to profit from taxpayer money that would otherwise go to Maine’s public schools.

“These transactions are robbing the public of its ability to oversee education,” the editorial stated.

You can tell how damaging this journalism is to the LePage administration simply by taking a look at the volume and tenor of their response.

First, Brent Littlefield, the Governor’s campaign adviser and now an employee of Maine People Before Politics, went on WGAN to argue that Woodard’s reporting should be ignored because it failed in one of three instances where campaign spending was mentioned to make the specific distinction that the $19,000 given by K12 Inc. to help get LePage elected was contributed to a pro-LePage PAC which then spent in support of his election rather than directly to the Governor’s campaign account.

Woodard defended his work the next day, both on the radio and on his blog and the paper clarified the point in a correction.

Then, Governor LePage himself got into the act. He used his weekend radio address to make the same distinction without much difference between the spending of his campaign and an outside PAC created to support his election, which he again argued should invalidate the entire report. Then he made a new argument, claiming that “the newspaper charged that we let that group write our state policy. There’s only one problem: we don’t have a state policy on digital learning yet.”

The apparent defense here is that just because there has been corporate influence in every aspect of policy development so far, including the drafting of LePage’s own executive order on the subject, doesn’t mean that this influence will continue as the policy is finalized or that it will have affected the final result. This is laughable, to say the least.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen also joined in the administration attack on the report, claiming in an op-ed that the article had something to do with partisanship.

“The Maine Sunday Telegram may believe that because these principles were developed in part by a former Republican governor [Jeb Bush], they should not make their way into Maine’s policies on digital learning, but I don’t share that narrow-minded view.”

Woodard’s piece, of course, focused not on Bush’s role in the group writing Maine policy, but the involvement of “the very companies that stand to make millions of dollars from the policies it advocates.”

Finally, yesterday, Maine People Before Politics launched a new salvo against Woodard’s journalism. Again, they ignored the actual content of the piece and instead claimed that since Woodard’s wife sits on an advisory board for a non-profit, non-digital charter school that he has a “grotesque” conflict of interest when reporting on the issue.

What’s interesting about all of these responses to Woodard’s journalism is that not a single one addresses the actual, damning claims of the report. Not even LePage’s own personal advocacy group is willing to dispute that: 1. Companies that stand to profit from changes in Maine’s laws gave tens of thousands of dollars to support his candidacy and that 2. A foundation funded by these corporations that advocates for policies that would help their bottom line was then allowed to write key portions of LePage’s education agenda.

This smokescreen and these attacks aren’t just about this particular avenue of influence or this specific area of policy. The reason they’re putting so many resources towards confusing this issue and attacking this reporter is that this isn’t an isolated occurrence.

In fact, this isn’t even the worst example of corporate contributions leading to what looks to be political payback.

The pharmaceutical industry, for one of many examples, gave $760,000 to support LePage’s candidacy and subsequently had their lobbyist appointed to lead his transition and write his health and environmental rollback laws, including an attack on the Kid-Safe Products law, legislation they had lobbied against.

Maine People Before Politics, the group that took the lead in attacking Woodard, is itself deeply implicated in this web of corporate money and influence. The transition money that was used to create LePage’s personal advocacy organization and shadow campaign came in large part from health insurance companies, corporate polluters and other corporate interests with business before the state. Many of them have seen policies favorable to their bottom lines proposed or enacted.

I think I have an idea for Woodard’s next piece of investigative journalism.

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike writes about Maine politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center, writes a political column for the Portland Press Herald