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Former Maine governor's final year in office included 39 days in Florida, $33,000 trip to Montenegro

Maine Gov. Paul LePage, at a House hearing on Capitol Hill in May, 2017.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By COLIN WOODARD | Portland Press Herald, Maine | Published: July 8, 2019

PORTLAND, Maine (Tribune News Service) — Last August, then-Gov. Paul LePage had a serious cardiac event in Canada.

Not until the next day did anybody outside his inner circle know he’d been out of the country, and it would be more than a month before the public learned he had experienced a medical issue serious enough to require him to be evacuated via LifeFlight to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.

The New Brunswick trip was one of many out-of-state journeys last year that weren’t disclosed until after they had been completed. Other trips were never disclosed, including an overnight September stay at the Trump International Hotel to attend a secretive meeting at the White House and a day trip to Montreal from his Florida home to visit executives of Hydro-Quebec.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram recently obtained the former governor’s 2018 calendar and hundreds of pages of travel-related documents via public records requests. The documents shed light on a number of trips the governor took pains to conceal ahead of time, including a trade mission to the Balkan nation of Montenegro that cost Maine taxpayers more than $33,000.

Breaking with previous norms, LePage resisted sharing details of his taxpayer-financed trips or even his day-to-day and week-to-week whereabouts. The Press Herald obtained his full schedule for the year only after he left office, and even then it took Gov. Janet Mills’ administration nearly four months to fulfill the request.

Unlike previous governors, LePage kept his travels secret. While his predecessor, Gov. John Baldacci, posted his daily schedule ahead of time, Mainers often didn’t know LePage was hundreds or thousands of miles away, sometimes for many days at a time.

The documents show LePage spent part or all of at least 80 days outside of Maine in 2018, including at least 39 that appear to have been spent in central Florida, where he and his wife, Ann, own a home.

The governor took five trips to visit Trump administration officials in Washington, D.C., including a Sept. 23-24 stay at the Trump International Hotel that was not previously disclosed. The only item on his schedule for that trip was a meeting at the White House, but it was not clear whom he met with and why. A White House spokesman, John Horstman, declined to comment.

LePage’s press secretary, Julie Rabinowitz, who now heads his political organization, Maine People Before Politics, did not respond to multiple interview requests or requests for comment from LePage. For the last two and half years he was in office, LePage failed to comply with a public records request relating to his stays at Trump International, later shown to have cost taxpayers at least $22,000.

LePage’s use of Trump’s hotel has been repeatedly cited by a federal judge in connection with a lawsuit alleging the president is violating the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids a president from profiting from foreign, federal or state governments. In December, the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia announced that they would subpoena LePage in connection with the lawsuit.

On Sept. 19, LePage made another previously undisclosed trip, flying from Orlando to Montreal for a meeting at Hydro-Quebec’s headquarters with its vice president for business development, Steve Demers. (Hydro-Quebec will be able to sell large amounts of power to customers in southern New England if Central Maine Power builds a transmission line corridor connection through Maine; Demers has been that company’s public face of that effort.) LePage returned to Orlando that evening and apparently stayed in Florida until Sept. 23, when he flew from Daytona Beach to D.C. for the secretive White House meeting.

LePage concealed an Oct. 14-16 trip to Madrid to meet the chairman of CMP’s parent company, Iberdrola, the $3 billion multinational electrical giant that bought CMP’s parent, Avangrid, in 2015. Six hundred pages of documents relating to the trip indicate that LePage requested the meeting with Iberdrola’s chairman, Ignacio S. Galan, and that it related to CMP’s proposed Quebec-Maine transmission line. The press and public did not learn of the trip until Oct. 22.

The Madrid trip was relatively inexpensive. The governor, chief of staff Holly Lusk and his two security guards flew from Boston via London on discount carrier Norwegian Airlines and back to London for a total cost of $4,833. (They continued on to trade meetings in Iceland from there.) Their four rooms at Madrid’s Grand Melia Felix cost a total of about $1,040.

LePage’s trip to Montenegro was another matter.

Maine taxpayers shelled out $29,905 in airfare, $3,166 in hotels, $206 in cosmetics and clothing, and $200 in bus tickets to allow LePage, four staffers and two security officers to spend four days in the tiny Balkan country, whose population is half of Maine’s. Ostensibly the trip was a “trade mission,” with the expenses paid by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, whose acting commissioner, Denise Garland, participated. But in reality, Maine taxpayers were underwriting U.S. foreign policy objectives in the region with little impact for Maine businesses or trade.

The governor’s invitation stemmed from the Maine National Guard’s ongoing assistance to the Montenegrin military under the Defense Department’s State Partnership Program, which pairs state National Guard units with military and security forces in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and South Asia. The United States has been looking to expand bilateral ties with Montenegro to counterbalance Russian influence and has hoped Maine could capitalize on its 12-year military relationship.

“The Guard and the military and the State Department are very much still in civil institution-building mode in Montenegro and want to make sure the country stays oriented to the west,” says Maine International Trade Center president Wade Merritt, who joined the governor’s delegation. “They are trying to get Montenegro’s relationship with Maine beyond its military to military partnership to educational and other exchanges.”

At the time, LePage’s office refused to provide details about the trip, and Maine’s reporters relied on information from the U.S. Embassy in Podgorica, the country’s capital. Documents acquired via a public records filled in additional details.

On the first morning of the trip – which the public learned about only after it was underway – LePage had a short photo opportunity to exchange gifts with the country’s defense minister, speaker of parliament, a foreign ministry official and President Milo Djukanovic. Later in the trip he had two meetings with groups of local business leaders described as “meet and greet” events. The rest of his schedule consisted of an outing on the Bay of Kotor on a Montenegrin government protocol vessel and tours of a marina, a wine cellar that had once been a Yugoslav Air Force bunker, and a winery that exports to New Hampshire.

While the trade benefits of the trip are unclear – Maine and Montenegro produce relatively few things each other lacks – the U.S. Embassy there sees the mission as a diplomatic success.

“The visit of Governor LePage sent a clear signal to the people of Montenegro that the U.S. is committed to developing a mutually beneficial relationship,” says Jeff Adler, the embassy’s public affairs officer. “It created a real spark of interest, and Governor Mills and her administration are helping follow through on this opportunity.”

(Asked about that, Mills’ office referred the Press Herald to a press release from the Maine National Guard describing Defense Minister Predrag Boskovic’s March 25-26 visit to Maine, where he met with Mills, Merritt, DECD Commissioner Heather Johnson and the Guard’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Douglas Farnham. “Areas of potential trade partnership were discussed, including the exportation of Maine seafood and importation of Montenegrin wine,” it said.)

On its final day, LePage’s visit was undercut by President Trump. In a response to a question from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson about NATO commitments to defend other countries, Trump appeared to disparage the alliance with Montenegrins, saying they were “very aggressive people” who might trigger World War III.

LePage’s longest foreign trip in 2018 was a seven-day trade mission to Iceland, which was publicized at the time.

LePage also spent considerable time and energy championing Canadian forestry interests before the Trump administration in an ongoing dispute over softwood lumber imports. His 2018 calendar shows he met with the premiers of Quebec and New Brunswick in Quebec City to discuss “forestry issues” in January; with the premier of New Brunswick and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in Washington on Feb. 7 to ask the Trump administration to spare New Brunswick mills from punitive duties; and at the Blaine House on Dec. 27 with New Brunswick forest products giant J.D. Irving’s co-owner, Jim Irving, with whom he also had four scheduled phone calls earlier in the year.

LePage made five other trips to Washington in 2018 for a variety of purposes: a meeting of the National Governors Association; a state dinner at the White House for French President Emmanuel Macron; a meeting between Trump and state governors about infrastructure; a meeting with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar about the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta; and a Dec. 3 day trip to view the late President George H.W. Bush’s body lying in state in the Capitol.

LePage also attended an offshore oil drilling conference in Houston April 29-30, and Republican Governors Association meetings in Aspen, Colorado, July 22-25 and in Phoenix, Nov. 27-29.

In addition to the Florida trips, the governor’s schedule included several extended absences from the office for which the calendar provided no explanation. These included six days around Memorial Day, nine days around Thanksgiving, and five days in early December.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Mills, who took office in January, said her office “strives to make every reasonable effort to keep the people of Maine informed of the governor’s schedule” and will continue to notify the press of her daily public schedule and out-of-state travels.

“She has not yet traveled out of the country,” press secretary Lindsay Crete said via email, “but if and when she does, we anticipate informing the press of it, as we do other trips, with consideration for any potential security concerns.”

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©2019 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)
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