The Credibility (Or Lack Thereof) Of Norm Olsen

Norm Olsen made a number of damning accusations on his way out the door, last week.  His statements should be familiar by now to anyone who has followed this mini-controversy, but if you need to be brought up to speed, just read his parting shots here.

One of his more troubling accusations piqued my curiosity:

As a Commissioner of the State of Maine, I had to wait six full weeks, from early May to late June, to get a meeting with the Governor on time-critical issues of resource management worth tens of millions of dollars to the State.

This seemed incredible to me, if true.  Every administration handles members of their cabinet differently, but for any commissioner to be in such need to meet with the governor and not have access would be mismanagement of the highest order.  Similar things came to mind reading the rest of his statement, but this particular part began to gnaw at me.  Something just didn’t feel right about it.

So I decided to see if I could find out just how true that statement was.  After all, this is state government we are talking about here, and it isn’t exactly hard to find out if high level government officials meet with each other when there are written records kept for just about everything.

I contacted the governor’s office, and requested any materials they had relating to meetings that Commissioner Olsen had with Governor Paul LePage.

What they gave me should raise doubts about Olsen’s entire account.

At the bottom of this article you will find a number of documents from the Governor’s office that were made available to me.  These documents directly contradict Olsen’s complaint that he couldn’t get a meeting with the governor, but also that he couldn’t get a meeting on critical subjects.

The first set of documents are considered “planning memos” of sorts – they are notifications which indicate a meeting has been scheduled, the subject of said meeting, and the required participants.  Here are the highlights from the critical months of May and June:

  • May 3rd, 2011 (10:45 AM) – Governor LePage meeting with Commissioner Norm Olsen, Colonel Joe Fessenden, Attorney General William Schneider, and Carlisle McLean (Senior Natural Resources Policy Advisor).  Meeting was to brief the Governor in preparation for a May 9th meeting with the Maine Lobstermen’s Heritage Associate.  Discussion topic was about the MLHA’s  complaints about current lobster fishing license restrictions.
  • May 4th, 2011 (3:30 PM) – Governor LePage meeting with Commissioner Olsen and Carlisle McLean.  Meeting was at the request of the Governor, and aimed to discuss the fishermen’s concerns.  Discussion was focused on shrimp fishery, lobster limited entry, scallop limited entry and drag-caught lobsters.
  • May 9th, 2011 (9:00 AM) – Governor LePage meeting with a representative of the MLHA, Commissioner Olsen, Carlisle McLean, Rod Carr and Jon Doyle.  Subject of meeting was a discussion regarding changing the rules to allow these small businessmen to fish beyond their current restrictions.  Governor LePage had repeatedly voiced his support to the change, and wanted to explore legislative remedies.
  • May 17th, 2011 (noon) – Meeting between the Governor and Commissioner Olsen.  Subject is the Maine Lobster Promotion Council’s input into the issue.  Alone time between the Governor and Commissioner Olsen.
  • May 20th, 2011 (12:45 PM) – Governor LePage tour of the DMR Boothbay Harbor lab with Commissioner Olsen.
  • June 2nd, 2011 (10:00 AM) – Governor LePage meeting with Commissioner Olsen, Carlisle McLean, John Butera and James Odlin.  Subject of the meeting was Maine’s Groundfish Industry.
  • June 20th, 2011 (10:30 AM) – Governor LePage meeting with Commissioner Olsen, John McGough, Carlisle McLean and Jim Wilson.  Meeting at the request of the Governor.  Subject of the meeting was lobster zones.
  • June 27th, 2011 (8:30 AM) – Governor LePage meeting with Commissioner Olsen and Carlisle McLean regarding seaweed harvesting and groundfish industry.
  • June 29th, 2011 (8:30 AM) – Governor LePage meeting with Commissioner Olsen.  Subject of meeting was shrimp fishery management options, DMR agency-wide review and the Maine Lobster Promotion Council.

Does this look like a commissioner with an access problem to you?

Olsen’s big claim was that he simply could not get a meeting with the Governor, and indeed that LePage and his senior staff “cut him off” for six weeks from May to June. The records at the Governor’s office tell an altogether different story, with Olsen meeting with the Governor nine times in those two months.

In addition to the listed meetings here, there were four separate cabinet meetings as well in those two months. That makes thirteenthirteen - separate opportunities for Commissioner Olsen to meet and talk with the governor about his areas of concern. And that doesn’t include any phone calls, emails, or other modes of communication not documented here.

To follow up on this, I also asked the administration for the frequency of meetings with other commissioners in the same area of policy.  In that same window of time Commissioner Beardsley met with the Governor six times, Commissioner Whitcomb five times, and Commissioner Woodcock once.

Olsen’s statement is an outright fabrication, and it wasn’t the only one.

If you read the documents here you will note a handwritten note from Governor LePage, placed on a series of letters from Maine fishermen who were upset by statements made by Olsen at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum.  The note stated:

Norm Olsen:

This letter came to me from concerned fishermen.  Would you review the three concerns and provide with talking points, so I may answer the concerns from the Administration standpoint.  If you prefer to discuss let me know.

Regards, Paul

Note that the Governor offered to discuss the matter personally with Olsen – hardly sounds like somebody being shut out.

This one note from the governor contradicts another of Olsen’s statements, namely this one:

Yet more disturbing, after that meeting in late June, the Governor sent his chief of staff and his chief of boards and commissions to threaten me with firing if I would not do whatever necessary to stop the complaints reaching him from special interest groups.  I was not allowed to know the source of the complaints, or their content, but I was to back off.

The note, and the letter it was attached to make it very clear who was complaining about Commissioner Olsen.  It was a group of fishermen who all attached their names very publicly by signing a letter that they sent to the governor’s office.  Many of the complainants not only signed their name, but listed their license number, how many years they had been fishing, and groups they belonged to.

In addition, their complaints are very clear, even spelled out in bullet point format for him.  The Governor not only told Olsen who was complaining and what they were complaining about, he asked for talking points.

For those not familiar with the workings of public policy, when the man at the top is asking for talking points about something like this, he is asking for what the administration should say publicly (from the Governor or his communications staff) about the issue.

This suggests that the governor was not in fact backing off a controversial policy due to pressure, but was attempting to get an official viewpoint that could be relayed with one voice so members of the government don’t contradict each other.

This is reinforced by the last letter included below, in which the Governor simply asks Senior Natural Resources Policy Advisor Carlisle McLean if Mr. Olsen is “moving too fast” on his proposed policy changes.  Asking if the commissioner is moving “too fast” means he is still supposed to be moving (i.e. he is still supportive of the policy), but is worried its rollout is being mishandled.

There’s more.  On June 1st, the governor’s office received a letter from the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association.  One section of the letter shows why Olsen was in hot water:

We had a very informative and candid meeting with Norman.  He was willing to stay and answer questions but with a very defensive edge.  There appeared to be a lot of inconsistencies in the answers that were given.  He was way too quick to answer and a lot of questions were never actually answered at all.  We feel that there is a definite direction that he is headed in and we are deeply concerned about this.

I have asked about a dozen people in various parts of Maine government about this incident, and to a person, they all tell the same story.  They say that Olsen approached these fishermen with a set of policy changes that were deeply unpopular with them, and rather than try to “win them over” or invite them into the process, he abrasively told them “this is how it is going to be”, and ignored their concerns.  He made no attempt to build political support, or help alleviate the concerns of a very important community of Maine citizens.

For all his blistering about “special interests”, the concerns of thousands of Maine citizens who have livelihoods dependent on fishing regulations are extremely important.  This is especially true when any proposed change in the system would benefit a very small group of individuals.

Like it or not, the entirety of governance and public policy is hundreds of “special interest groups”, representing thousands of citizens, all vying for the best set of laws for what matters to them.  This is true of everything from the Chamber of Commerce to the local affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

I have certainly been more than a little critical of Governor LePage over the last two years.  From the campaign alone, I pretty much kissed any chance to be on his Christmas card list goodbye.  I have never been shy of taking the hatchet to any Republican I thought deserved it, and if I thought the Governor was on the wrong side of this issue, I wouldn’t hesitate to loudly proclaim so.

But, the more I learn about Olsen’s behavior – from inside the administration and (more importantly) outside of it – the more dubious his claims become.  If he was lying about the things I have covered above, it seems likely that much (if not all) of what he said is either an exaggeration, or a fabrication.

It seems much more likely to me that Mr. Olsen was simply uninterested in doing the political work necessary to implement his desired changes, and due to this angered everyone around him, and isolated himself.  Governor LePage appears to have been more than open to meeting with him, more than open to discussing the policy changes, and quite professional in how he handled most of this affair.

In contrast, when Mr. Olsen doesn’t get his way, much like when he left the State Department, he reacts rather… poorly.

To read the documents I requested from the governor’s office, read below. Note, I redacted some phone numbers, but no other changes were made:

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Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.