If there’s a charity event or service organization in Aroostook County, there’s a pretty good chance that Jason Parent has had a hand in running it.
He has served as president of the Greater Fort Kent Area Chamber of Commerce, the United Way of Aroostook and the Maine Acadian Heritage Council. He has served on the board of directors of the Presque Isle Rotary Club, Momentum Aroostook and Leaders Encouraging Aroostook Development and has helped organize Aroostook Idol (now Northern Star) and the World Junior Biathlon Championship.
His day jobs, formerly at Northern Maine Community College and now at The Aroostook Medical Center are also focused on community engagement and fundraising. Googling his name brings up a long list of awards and honors for successful civic pursuits.
In short, Jason Parent is known for getting things done for his community. He’s not exactly a quitter.
It surprised many then, in April, 2013, when Parent announced he was stepping down as Maine International President and member of the board of the international governing organization of the 2014 World Acadian Congress. He cited “recent exciting changes and advancement in my professional career, and the realization that my young family is seeing less and less of me” as the reasons for his decision in a letter to friends and the local media.
The World Acadian Congress (commonly known by its French acronym, CMA) was a project that Parent had been organizing and leading for four and a half years and had a huge number of moving parts. The massive celebration, which unites Acadian communities from Maritime Canada, Quebec, Maine, Louisiana and across the world, is held every five years and brings together tens of thousands of Acadian descendents dispersed by the British military during the Great Expulsion of 1755-1764.
Parent had been part of the organizing committee that helped win the hosting bid for Acadia of the Lands and Forests, a region including Northern Maine as well as parts of New Brunswick and Quebec. The two-week bash would eventually feature parades, concerts, traditional food and games and more than 120 family reunions. Everyone involved seems to agree that it provided a huge cultural and economic boost for the St. John Valley and Northern Maine.
Now that the Congress is in the rearview mirror, however, members of the Maine organizing board have begun to provide more context to Parent’s departure. They allege that Parent resigned not just because of the reasons in his letter, but primarily because of a threat by Maine Governor Paul LePage to withhold $500,000 in state funding for the Congress unless Parent was removed.
“What I was told is it was either get rid of Jason Parent or you lose your funding,” said Anne Roy, a board member and director of the Acadian Village Museum “He was a very good manager. There was no reason to bamboozle him the way he got bamboozled.”
According Roy and six other members of the board who confirmed her account, some only willing to speak on background, Governor LePage’s displeasure was the result of an incident involving the presentation of a CMA-branded license plate to then-Congressman Mike Michaud.
The plates were the product of a bill passed by the State Legislature to honor the Congress and provide a fundraising tool, with part of the proceeds from sales of the plates going to fund the CMA.
The plan, according to board members, was to publicly present the plates to all of Maine’s congressional delegation, as well as to Governor LePage, as a way of drawing attention to the fundraiser and the Congress.
LePage apparently felt that Michaud receiving his plate first and in a very public way (it took place on stage at the Northern Star singing competition) was a political affront. Michaud was not yet a declared candidate for governor, but it was rumored that he was likely to run against LePage. According to the board members, LePage’s displeasure was communicated through a member of his administration.
“George [Dumond] and Lorraine [Pelletier] got the threat. It came through Danny Deveau, one of men who works for LePage. He’s the Maine-Canadian ombudsman,” said Roy.
Daniel Deveau was an early political ally of the governor. He made financial and in-kind contributions to LePage during both the primary and general election campaigns in 2010, while also running as the Republican candidate for the District 35 State Senate seat in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat incumbent Democrat Troy Jackson.
In 2012, LePage appointed Deveau as Maine-Canadian Trade Ombudsman, a position under the purview of the governor’s office that was first created in 2001, but had never before been filled. He was confirmed to the $60,000-a-year position by a 26 to 6, bi-partisan vote in the Maine Senate.
“I heard at the meeting that Governor LePage through Danny Deveau said he was not happy that Jason presented it to Mike,” said board member Linda Cyr, referring to a meeting of the board in April, 2013 at which Jason’s resignation was decided. “There was concern expressed about funding from the state.”
“Like all the others I was told so but I don’t know it for a fact,” said board member Don Levesque when asked if Deveau had expressed those concerns on behalf of the governor.
When first asked about the issue, Dumond and Pelletier both denied that they had spoken to Deveau or that such a threat was discussed by the board, but Deveau himself wasn’t quite as reticent.
“I expressed my concerns that the former president was acting without direction from the board and bringing his own personal politics into the World Acadian Congress,” wrote Deveau by email.
When asked by phone if he had threatened to withhold state funding for the Congress, Deveau refused to answer and abruptly ended the conversation. He also did not respond to further questions in writing.
Once Pelletier and Dumond knew that other members of the board and Deveau had spoken publicly about the issue, they acknowledged that the conversations had in fact taken place.
“There was of course a comment that was made [by Deveau] about an article that Jason put in the paper,” said Pelletier. “He said the governor wasn’t happy.”
“Danny Deveau did bring those issues to me, and I brought them to the board,” said Dumond. He declined to answer when asked to confirm that Deveau had made a specific threat about funding for the Congress.
According to Roy, the reticence by some board members to discuss the issue and the reason it hasn’t surfaced until now, two years later, is that the board as a group, including Parent, decided to keep the matter under wraps for the good of the Congress.
“It was kept quiet. There was no reason to wake up the dead. It’s a done deal.” said Roy. “George Dumond was a good leader and Lorraine was a good office person. I don’t think any of us was happy with what had taken place, but we didn’t have a choice. This was not pennies we were talking about, this was a million dollars.”
The state funding for the event, which LePage had promised to deliver during his 2010 election campaign, came through the Maine Office of Tourism, with some involvement by the Department of Economic Development. A bill to require the funding by statute submitted by Sen. Jackson was voted down by the Appropriations Committee in 2012, but it’s not clear what discretion LePage had over the funding that was eventually allocated. At that point in 2013, $500,000 had already been disbursed to the CMA.
The state’s million dollars, spread out over four years, was the major source of funding for the Maine section of the CMA, after a $1 million federal appropriation supported by Representative Michaud and Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe failed to make its way through the U.S. Congress.
“I can tell you that LePage was responsible for the only government funding we got. I can tell you that was much appreciated. We would not have been able to participate in the Congress without LePage’s support and you’re going to be hard pressed to find me, probably, wanting to talk bad about Governor LePage for any other reason,” said Dumond.
LePage was a prominent fixture at the Congress when it was held, the August before his 2014 re-election. He participated in ceremonies and events with other regional leaders and was featured in local and regional media coverage.
Jason Parent, for his part, hopes to put the whole issue behind him. He declined to give details of the events leading to his resignation on the record, saying he didn’t want to risk the matter further affecting his life and career.
When asked if the allegations that financial threats from Governor LePage forced him from his role as President were true, Parent said simply “I can confirm that is the case.”
LePage’s alleged actions with the CMA board seem to mirror other times that the governor has financially threatened independent organizations and bodies that don’t normally fall under the governor’s direct authority.
Earlier this year, LePage withheld funding from the Maine Human Rights Commission over a ruling regarding religious discrimination with which he disagreed. In January, LePage forced the resignation of John Fitzsimmons, President of the Maine Community College System, through the use of financial threats, telling trustees that they would “feel the wrath” if they didn’t oust him. Last month, LePage forced Good Will-Hinckley to fire newly-hired House Speaker Mark Eves from a position as President there by threatening to withhold state funding meant for a school for at-risk children.
“What happened to Jason is the very same thing that happened to Eves,” said Roy. “It’s not right. It’s not the way America was meant to operate.”
One difference between Parent’s case and Eves’, aside from LePage having confirmed himself that he made financial threats to Good Will-Hinckley, is that the matter with the CMA seems to have turned on an issue of electoral politics, rather than policy or ideological disagreement.