AUGUSTA — After meeting privately with the head of the Maine Army National Guard for more than an hour Thursday, Gov. Paul LePage issued a statement reasserting that no decision has been made about sending the Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion to another state.
His statement contradicted an email sent last month by Brig. Gen. James Campbell to members of Maine’s congressional delegation that said it was “highly likely” the 133rd would be swapped for an infantry unit. That email was also sent to one of LePage’s senior staff members.
Thursday’s meeting was the first face-to-face discussion between the governor and the Guard’s adjutant general since the Portland Press Herald reported three weeks ago that Campbell was planning to swap the 133rd Engineer Battalion for an infantry group in another state. Campbell returned this week from a five-week fellowship in Saudi Arabia.
After the meeting in the governor’s office, Campbell left quietly and LePage abruptly canceled a public appearance in the Hall of Flags, just steps from his office. Neither LePage nor Campbell would speak with the Press Herald.
Two hours later, LePage’s office released a statement that reiterated what Campbell told Guard members in an email this week: that no decision is imminent.
“Once again, no decision has been made, nor will it be for years,” the governor said in the statement. “This issue has been mis-characterized in the media and politicized by liberal Democratic Representatives Chellie Pingree – whose office leaked the information to reporters – and Mike Michaud, who are trying to make it a campaign issue. It is shameful they would use the Maine National Guard members as pawns in their election-year tactics. I will say it again: While I am commander-in-chief, I will not do anything to harm the dedicated men and women of the Maine National Guard.”
Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz, who broke the story that the 133rd would likely leave Maine, said Thursday that his tip came from “within the Maine Army National Guard, not the congressional delegation.”
Willy Ritch, a spokesman for Pingree, said Thursday that her office did not leak the information. He said Pingree agrees with the governor that the Guard and its members should not be politicized.
Campbell and LePage have insisted that no decision has been made, and have blamed the Obama administration for proposing a reduction of 20,000 soldiers from the National Guard ranks.
Final decisions on where National Guard units move are made by the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., which orchestrates strategy nationwide.
In addition to issuing his statement Thursday, LePage sent a letter to the president.
“I am writing as the commander-in-chief of the Maine National Guard to express grave concern with your Administration’s proposal to significantly cut National Guard forces across the country,” LePage said in the letter. “I believe these cuts will harm national security and dramatically reduce the State of the Maine’s homeland security and emergency management capabilities.”
However, Campbell’s email to the congressional delegation indicates that the plan to move the 133rd Engineer Battalion was not prompted by the Obama administration’s proposed cuts.
“It is highly likely at this point that we will seek to make a change with another state, regardless of whether or not the cuts we are fighting against actually happen,” Campbell wrote in the email April 29. “Again, we have been looking for an infantry unit for some years now.”
Also last month, a presentation by Campbell’s chief of staff, Col. Jack Mosher, that was seen by several high-ranking Guard officers indicated that the transfer of the 133rd’s equipment to another state would be completed by 2015.
Campbell’s email was sent to one of LePage’s senior policy advisers, Jonathan Nass. Campbell spent about an hour in Nass’ office Thursday before his meeting with the governor.
Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, acknowledged late Thursday that the governor was aware of what Campbell wrote last month, but said the more recent information from the general is that no decision has been made.
“I cannot speak for the adjutant general,” she said.
Asked whether the governor still has complete confidence in Campbell, Bennett said she had not had a chance to ask him.
Daniel Goure, a security expert for the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based military policy group, said the apparent contradiction between Campbell’s email on April 29 and what he has told the governor more recently could harm him.
“Clearly, (Campbell) has been on both sides of this, but more than that, he hasn’t been honest,” Goure said.
A Press Herald reporter visited Camp Keyes, the Maine Guard’s headquarters in Augusta, late Thursday morning to request an interview with the general. A Guard official said no one was available to meet and referred all questions to the governor’s office.
The 133rd Engineer Battalion has a strong tradition of public service in support of community projects in Maine, often for nonprofit groups, and often assists in civil emergencies such as floods and hurricanes. The engineering unit also has provided significant training opportunities for women, which some fear will be diminished if a transition is made to a combat battalion.
Michaud, a Democrat who is running against Republican LePage for governor, has not made statements about the Guard issue unless he has been asked directly by reporters.
“Governor LePage sees fit to continue launching baseless accusations that are both unfounded and disrespectful, particularly at a time when the 133rd is deployed abroad,” Michaud said in a prepared statement. “I have never thought it was right to make this a political issue, which is why I have refrained from speaking out publicly during this ongoing apparent miscommunication between the Governor and those in the Guard who report to him.”
Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler has criticized LePage on the issue.
“I’m not sure how the governor – the unit’s commander in chief – allowed the discussion (about sending this unit to another state) to get so far down the road,” Cutler said in a statement Tuesday. “But I urge the Governor to end it now. This unit is too important to Maine to permit it to be sent to another state.”
Ritch said Pingree and other members of the delegation have opposed the president’s proposed cuts. Pingree sent a letter in December to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warning about what the cuts could mean for Maine soldiers. She wrote that a better way to save money and streamline operations in the military is to blend strong reserve units with active duty units.
Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, the primary owner of MaineToday Media, which publishes the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta and the Morning Sentinel in Waterville.
Campbell acknowledged in his email on April 29 that moving the 133rd Engineer Battalion, most of which is serving in Afghanistan until next month, would prompt emotional reactions.
“As I’m sure you understand, we are trying very hard to minimize any turmoil surrounding this issue, as it may adversely affect the members of the 133rd,” he wrote.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: