SKOWHEGAN — A Somerset County commissioner who also sits on the board of directors of a nonprofit that stands to benefit financially from a controversial transmission line project reportedly is resigning from the board after accusations of a conflict of interest.

Lloyd Trafton, the county’s District 5 commissioner, has a jurisdiction that includes the unorganized territory and other parts of Somerset County where the NECEC project would cut a new corridor for a Quebec-to-Massachusetts power line.

He also sits on the board of directors for Western Mountains & Rivers Corp., a nonprofit that negotiated for a $22 million benefits package from Central Maine Power in exchange for support of the project.

Trafton recently was receiving backlash from opponents of NECEC over his role in interviewing candidates to represent Somerset County on the Land Use Planning Commission, which will play a key role in issuing permits for the NECEC.

He did not respond to several phone calls or an email sent Thursday by the Morning Sentinel asking about the situation, but later Thursday night he sent an email to Russell Walters, president of Western Mountains and Rivers, submitting his resignation from that board.

The email was shown to the Morning Sentinel by Somerset County Administrator Dawn DiBlasi, who said the county has checked with its attorney and ascertained there is no conflict of interest for Trafton because, she said, he does not benefit personally from sitting on the board.

In his email to Walters, Trafton said he was resigning because of the accusations of conflict of interest.

“As we all know, there is no conflict of interest, but the complaints  are causing too much involvement for our staff at the Commissioner’s office,” he wrote. “It has been a pleasure to work with the members of the committee, and I thank you for the opportunity to serve on your committee.”

Walters said in an email Friday he has been traveling and would not be available to comment on the situation until Monday. Trafton also did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Before Trafton’s resignation from the board, members of the opposition group Say NO to NECEC had been planning to bring their concerns to a county commissioners meeting Wednesday. Director Sandra Howard said Friday they still plan on doing so.

In an email, Howard said the group is pleased with Trafton’s decision to step down from the board, but “there remains a continuing conflict of interest associated with his authority as a Somerset County Commissioner.”

“Commissioner Trafton’s bias has resulted in a widespread distrust of his actions as a county commissioner, which have lacked transparency and fairness in his communication to residents,” she said.” There is a strong sentiment among his constituents that he acted without communicating or acknowledging his constituents’ views on the corridor project.”

 

LUPC INTERVIEW

In April, opponents of the NECEC filed a complaint with the Office of the Maine Attorney General raising concerns about a conflict of interest.

It included a statement from a woman who interviewed for the seat on the LUPC and said she was pressured by Trafton to answer questions about whether she supported the project.

Howard gave a copy of the complaint to the Morning Sentinel this week.

The attorney general’s office had forwarded it to the county to deal with in its human resources department.

Approval from the LUPC is one of the final steps necessary in the permitting of the controversial NECEC project, which would build 145 miles of new transmission line from Quebec to Lewiston to bring hydropower to Massachusetts.

SKOWHEGAN – ME 07-06-2016 Lloyd Trafton, County Commissioner Ditrict #5 looks over paper work during a discussion on how to move forward with road damage to private roads in the unorganized territories near Jackman at the Commissioner’s Chambers at the Somerset County Superior Court House in Skowhegan on Wednesday, July 6, 2016. (Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans)

The complaint, filed by Elizabeth Boepple, an attorney for members of Say NO to NECEC, accused Trafton of a conflict of interest by using his position as a county commissioner to “1) further the position of the Western Mountains and Rivers Corporation (WMRC) in relation to the application of NECEC to the LUPC, and 2.) stack the deck in favor of the NECEC project with a biased commissioner.”

In the complaint, Susan Hathaway, a candidate for the LUPC commissioner, wrote she was “dumbfounded and puzzled by having to answer a political question during an interview.”

“I was very uncomfortable as I had no idea exactly what Lloyd wanted from me, but it was very clear that he wanted a definitive answer and he would not let up until I gave him one,” she wrote.

After she tried to skirt the question, Hathaway said in an interview she eventually gave in and said she did not support the project.

She was then told by Trafton that he “had heard enough.” He conferred with the two other commissioners conducting the interview, Robert Sezak and Newell Graf, and they said they had no more questions and she could leave the interview.

Hathaway, who lives in The Forks and is the code enforcement officer in Embden, said she couldn’t say whether her answer cost her the position.

The candidate who ended up getting the job, Gwen Hilton, of Starks, previously served on the commission from 2005 to 2017 and was “very qualified,” she said.

“My main objective (of the complaint) is not that I didn’t get hired; it’s that he was in a position to influence (the LUPC vote) one way or another, and he took advantage of that,” Hathaway said. “That’s wrong.”

Hilton said she was also asked in her interview whether she supported the project and did not answer.

“My response was that I couldn’t answer that question because it would show I have some sort of bias, and I cannot legitimately go in and vote on that project as a commissioner on the LUPC with any kind of public bias,” she said.

 

WHAT MAKES A CONFLICT? 

In her email Friday, DiBlasi said a conflict of interest exists when a person stands to benefit personally.

“In this instance, Commissioner Trafton sat on a Board that does not compete with his duties as a Commissioner and he does not profit personally from the Board position,” she wrote. “Commissioner Trafton is not an ‘organization’ and he has no ownership of the ‘organization’ so there is no personal financial gain as there is no payment for his sitting on the Board.”

However, Boepple, the attorney for the opponents, said Maine law recognizes a much broader conflict of interest than just personal gain.

“Use of power to obtain a benefit for another even without personal gain can rise to the level of a conflict of interest,” she said.

As opponents lauded Trafton’s resignation from the board of Western Mountains and Rivers, some also said the county commissioners need to take further action to address the conflict and listen to residents.

“To date, no towns in northern Somerset county, located in Commissioner Trafton’s district, support the CMP corridor, and residents from these areas are demanding that county leaders represent their voices on this matter,” Howard said.

She said residents and opponents of the NECEC still plan to attend next week’s county commissioners meeting Wednesday to speak about concerns regarding Trafton and ask commissioners to take another vote on their previous vote to support the project.

In December, Trafton participated in a vote by the commission on whether they wanted to continue support for the project.

As more information about the project has come to light over the last year, several communities in its corridor have taken similar votes, many of them to rescind support for the project that they said was given prematurely in the early stages of its development.

The Somerset County Commissioners, however, voted 3-2 to maintain support.

Asked why he did not feel a need to recuse himself from the vote at the December meeting, Trafton, who voted to maintain support of the project, denied a conflict of interest and said at the time he “receives nothing” for being on the board.

“I haven’t participated in any decision making (for Western Mountains & Rivers),” he said. “The group is still being formatted.”

The county commission also approved taking no further action on the NECEC project after a motion from Trafton, who said he wanted to see the issue “put to bed.”

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