Gov. Paul LePage summoned Brig. Gen. James Campbell to his office after the news broke that Campbell, the adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, was advancing a plan to exchange the 133rd Engineer Battalion for an infantry unit from out of state.

LePage appeared to be caught off guard by the news, and Campbell said he offered to resign at the May 22, 2014 meeting, telling the governor that he didn’t want to be a distraction in an election year. But LePage did not accept his resignation.

Brigadier General James Campbell, who served as adjutant general of the Maine Army National Guard until earlier this week when Gov. Paul LePage fired him, poses for a portrait at the Portland Press Herald. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

“He laughed and said, ‘You have nothing to worry about,’” Campbell said Thursday in an extended interview at the offices of the Press Herald.

Campbell was fired by LePage on Tuesday, just moments before Campbell was scheduled to deliver his annual State of the Guard address to a joint session of the Legislature. LePage said he had lost trust in Campbell after reading records detailing his work on the guard unit exchange that were about to be released to the Portland Press Herald in response to a Freedom of Information request submitted on Feb. 10.

The governor’s move effectively ends the 50-year-old general’s 28-year military career, which began when he enrolled in the Reserve Officers Training Corps as a student at Colby College in the 1980s. That career has taken him through 14 assignments in the last 19 years, including a tour in Afghanistan in 2006-2007, a fellowship at Tufts and a series of increasingly responsible positions with the National Guard, which he joined in 1995.

Although he holds several college degrees, including a master’s in European history and a doctorate in British history from the University of Maine, Campbell has a particular affinity for the infantry and said his life – until now – has always been about being a soldier.

During Thursday’s 90-minute interview, Campbell’s demeanor ranged from confident to tearful as he expressed confusion over his dismissal, recounted the steps he took to keep LePage informed and detailed his reasons for initiating the engineers-for-infantry exchange.

It was his first interview with the paper since the Press Herald broke the story on April 29, 2014. Campbell was joined by Lance Dutson, a political strategist and consultant, and Campbell’s brother, who drove up Thursday from Massachusetts to provide support.

Campbell said the governor and his staff were up to speed at every stage on the plans for the 133rd, even as late as last March 19, when LePage again requested to meet with Campbell about the pending release of documents to the Press Herald.

Campbell said that during the March 10 meeting, held over lunch at the Blaine House, he even offered to withdraw the plan to transition the 133rd to an infantry unit – an offer Campbell said he made multiple times dating back to last year – but the governor said no.

Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, said Thursday the governor didn’t accept Campbell’s resignation offers because Campbell told LePage that the Press Herald’s reports were false and that he would “make it right.”

“The governor had no reason not to believe him. You want to believe your top guy,” Bennett said.

LePage felt that he had to support Campbell’s plan, Bennett said, because the general “always assured us that these were orders coming from Washington.”

Campbell said he brought with him to the March 19 meeting a folder of the documents that would soon be released to the Press Herald and offered to go through them with the governor, but LePage said that wasn’t necessary.

Bennett said that the governor likes to review all documents himself before discussing them. He did that over the weekend, she said.

Campbell said that after the March 19 meeting, the next time he saw the governor was Tuesday, when he was summoned to the Cabinet Room and fired.

I said why, and he said, ‘I think you haven’t been forthright,’” Campbell said. The general protested, but said the governor’s mind was made up.

LePage, in brief comments to reporters at the State House on Thursday, was asked if he believed Campbell had misled him.

“General Campbell and I had a difference of opinion and, since I was his superior, I asked him to find another career,” the governor said. “And that’s all I’m going to say. Everything else is a personnel matter. And frankly, I did what I thought was best for the state of Maine.”

Pressed about what specifically in the documents led LePage to his decision, the governor said, “Go read the emails and you can tell for yourself. I think it sticks right out. It’s very clear in the emails and what I have said in the past, that what I read in the emails and what I have said in the past, they were not quite the same. And that was all I needed to do.”

Those documents show that Campbell’s plans for the 133rd were initiated by him and were not being forced upon the state by potential cuts at the federal level. The documents also show that, based on an email from Campbell’s chief of staff to his counterpart in another state that was considering an engineer-for-infantry swap with Maine, no border states were at risk of losing engineers, even if cuts went through.

The documents indicate that Campbell’s request for the 133rd swap was not directly connected to the budget process, but Campbell insisted Thursday that was not the case. Instead, he said he was being proactive about what he assumed were almost certain cuts at the National Guard level.

He also said he believes Maine was, and still is, at risk of losing engineers, although he acknowledged that “nobody gave me a document that said this.”

Campbell said his firing was a shock. He called it a “public humiliation,” and lamented that his military career is over. Campbell, who is 50, has served since he was 22. It’s the only profession he’s ever had. He said he could be given another military assignment but he doesn’t expect that to occur given his dismissal. And, he said, the governor would have to sign off on any new assignment, which is unlikely.

But Campbell said he’s not just worried about what he does next. He’s worried about what happens to the Maine National Guard.

“This is devastating to the Guard,” he said.

Staff Writer Kevin Miller contributed to this story.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.