Serving the Public
DCP review raises questions about role of public officials
Thursday, December 13, 2012 5:37 AM
Searsport police removed Ben Crimaudo, 75, from a Searsport public hearing on Wednesday, November 28, for urgent whispering. No charges were filed, and Crimaudo left the meeting and came back the following night.
After removing Ben Crimaudo from a public meeting for whispering, Searsport police officers close the doors to the cafeteria to block reporters from following. Video photos courtesy of Amy Browne, WERU 89.9 FM
That might have been the end of an incident involving an overzealous officer.
But the sequence of events that transpired that night raises questions about whether Searsport's town administration has had undue influence during the past two years on the public process to see if a proposed 22.7-million-gallon propane facility does, in fact, comply with town ordinances.
To be clear, undue influence is not necessarily an intentional attempt to thwart the public process. It can be subtle. It can even be well meaning. It can just be an atmosphere of what is considered acceptable among town officials. But town officials serve the public. It is public rights they swear to uphold. Undue influence can be as subtle as shifting allegiance from protecting the public to protecting town administrators or looking the other way when looking harder is what is called for.
Or it can be as obvious as a Searsport police officer grabbing a camera and pushing the cameraman away with threats of further police action if the cameraman continues to document five police officers surrounding a 75-year-old man in the hallway of a public building.
Undue influence is simply this: one person or more taking advantage of a position of power over another person or persons.
Searsport Resident Ben Crimaudo
Crimaudo said initially he was in his seat waving his arms, trying to get the attention of Bruce Probert, the planning board chairman.
Crimaudo, who is opposed to the DCP development and who is a member of Thanks But No Tank (TBNT), the lead opposition group, was concerned that Neal Frangesh, an engineering expert who was commissioned by the planning board to review the DCP proposal, was answering questions on behalf of DCP.
Frangesh, of LGA Engineering, has done work in the past for Exxon and DCP Midstream. When he was hired by the town, Probert said he did not think the work Frangesh had done for DCP in the past indicated a potential conflict of interest.
But Crimaudo saw a clear conflict.
"He had no right to answer that question," said Crimaudo. "He was up there to advise the board and he was answering a question that the chairman was asking of the applicant. He appeared to be representing DCP and no one called him out on it."
Crimaudo was unable to get the attention of the planning board. Had he been able to, it is unlikely they would have recognized him to speak, since the open public comment period was not scheduled until two days later.
Crimaudo, however, is a member of TBNT and TBNT attorney Steve Hinchman, who had the floor, could pose the conflict-of-interest question.
Crimaudo decided to try to get a message to Hinchman, by passing it along to the organization's manager, Ken Agabian, so he got up and walked across the auditorium and started whispering in Agabian's ear.
"I waved twice, then walked across the room and was whispering to Ken very quietly," said Crimaudo.
Officer Ryan Nickerson was standing behind Agabian.
Nickerson told him there was no talking, according to Crimaudo. Crimaudo said he protested quietly.
"I told him, I'm whispering, I'm not talking. And this is none of your business," said Crimaudo.
Crimaudo said Nickerson then abruptly told him to go back to his seat.
Crimaudo again refused, saying it was important that he get a message to Hinchman.
"Then he said:?'That's it. You're out of here,' and grabbed me by the arm," said Crimaudo.
Up until that point, according to Crimaudo, no one nearby appeared to have noticed the exchange between the two men.
"I?said loudly, 'I'm not doing anything,'" said Crimaudo, and he reached for the low wall next to where he was standing and held on because he has balance problems and felt he needed support.
"I shouted: I didn't do anything, leave me alone, and then I started yelling for the chief of police to come over," he said.
At that point, Searsport Police Chief Richard LaHaye came over and quietly said, "Ben, let's talk about this," according to Crimaudo, who then followed the police chief out into the hallway.
"The chief calmed it right down," said Crimaudo.
But what happened next brings questions of undue influence into sharp focus.
Public Affairs Reporter Amy Browne
Amy Browne, the news director for WERU-FM, was standing nearby when Crimaudo was escorted out of the cafeteria. All five Searsport police officers left the cafeteria behind the police chief and Browne followed, filming as she went.
Browne's video reveals that, as she reached the double doors in the back, the police officers closed both doors in her face as she was saying loudly, "I am media."
Browne quickly detoured out another door, while filming. As she came around a corner in the hallway of the Searsport high school, she clearly captured all five police officers standing in a semicircle around Crimaudo.
The conversation between Crimaudo and the men was low and did not appear to be heated.
The only other person apparently in the hall was a cameraman who was filming the discussion from about 20 feet away. The photographer was Belfast resident Peter Wilkinson, according to Browne.
Browne's video captures a Searsport police officer approaching Wilkinson, grabbing Wilkinson's camera and pushing him along, telling Wilkinson to go back into the cafeteria or leave the building. The officer also blocked Browne from filming, even after she once again identified herself as a member of the media.
In a Bangor Daily News video, Police Chief LaHaye can be seen blocking the camera lens of a reporter with his hand.
"I've covered a lot of protests up in Bangor at the federal building where there are hundreds of protesters," said Browne, a veteran news producer. "I've never seen anything like this. Bangor police have shown courtesy to protesters."
Browne said even when police have told protesters to leave the vicinity, she has always been allowed to document the interactions between the police and the public.
"This was very unusual," she said.
Searsport Police Chief LaHaye
"The hearing was there for people to get answers," said Chief LaHaye, who added that the police were there because some previous DCP meetings had become disruptive.
"We were asked to make sure that the process is done in an orderly fashion. That is our role," said LaHaye.
"Ben Crimaudo was waving his arms while the lawyers were having an exchange. Hinchman, the lawyer for TBNT was asking a question. One of the board members began to answer the question," said LaHaye. "Then (Crimaudo) left his seat, crossed the cafeteria and began to speak to a gentleman."
"Officer Nickerson asked him to return to his seat three times," according to LaHaye, who was still on the other side of the room at his point. "Nickerson put his hand on Crimaudo's shoulder and asked him to step outside. Crimaudo called for him to stop."
At that point, the chief crossed the room and intervened. "I quietly asked him to step outside and discuss what had happened," said LaHaye.
"There was a mass exodus of the cafeteria, about 40 to 50 people came out in the hall," said LaHaye.
Crimaudo and LaHaye
A crowd followed, said Crimaudo, and, once out in the hall, they started questioning what the police were doing, then broke into a spiritual, "We Shall Not Be Moved." One woman was particularly upset, asking the police chief why he had singled out Crimaudo.
Chief LaHaye responded to all questions by telling people to move along.
"He was rattled," Crimaudo said, of the police chief. "He started muttering something about respect and me waving my arms. A reporter was filming him, and he told her to shut that down, but she refused."
Another video shows a police officer holding his hand up to block a reporter from video recording the incidents in the hallway and telling the reporter, "You need to turn it off," after she had identified herself as a member of the media.
"You've been warned three times," he says to her, then holds his hand in front of the lens and says, "You need to leave and turn it off."
The video goes blank after that statement.
"The chief told me, 'You can't go back in or I'll arrest you,'" said Crimaudo, who left shortly after with his wife, Anne.
"At that point, it had gone too far," said LaHaye.
Crimaudo said he "generally had a cordial relationship" with Chief LaHaye and they had no previous disputes.
When LaHaye was asked if he had anticipated any violence at the public hearings, he said no, he believed violence was very unlikely.
That statement raises the question of why Officer Nickerson engaged in use of force with Crimaudo inside the cafeteria - grabbing him by the arm - when there was no perceived threat to public order.
And, again, in the hallway, where use of force was used to stop the media from covering the event.Law Enforcement Code of Ethics
Law enforcement officers swear to uphold a code of ethics when they graduate from the academy. The first part of the oath follows:
"As a Law Enforcement Officer, my fundamental duty is to serve mankind; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation, and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the Constitutional rights of all ... to liberty, equality and justice."
But in the real world, those ideals are a bit muddier, as succinctly described in the Handbook of Public Administration by Peters and Pierre (2007), a guide to how to effectively work for the public.
Frontline workers, like police, fire fighters, town administrators and even volunteer board members, serve the public at large that they represent. In theory, they answer to the public, but they also have the opportunity to influence public policy and the authority to exercise considerable discretion, according to Peters and Pierre. That ability raises the questions of democratic control and whether frontline workers step beyond their boundaries to exercise undue influence on the process, according to the authors.
The question for Officer Nickerson is: Did he serve public safety by protecting the public or did he do the opposite: chill public speech by interfering in a whispered conversation?
The question for Chief LaHaye is: Did his officers protect public safety and public speech or create an intimidating atmosphere that disrupts the public process?
The question for the board of selectmen, who are elected to represent all of Searsport, is whether the public administrators of the town are representing Searsport citizens without bias.
These are not questions about whether a big tank will go into Searsport or not. These are deeper questions about fair and democratic process.
Searsport Town Manager James Gillway
Town Manager James Gillway said he hadn't seen anything that had happened on the night of November 28 until people started abruptly leaving the hall.
"I really didn't see much," said Gillway, who was near the front of the hall, keeping an eye on the audio system, which he was monitoring. He was near the section reserved for interested parties, including Hinchman and the DCP representatives.
Crimaudo was seated in the rear section open to the general public.
As town manager, Gillway is the police chief's supervisor. Gillway also served as the Searsport police chief for years, until he was hired as the town manager, so is familiar with police procedure.
No formal complaint has been filed regarding the removal of Crimaudo from the meeting. Gillway said the decisions regarding his removal are being reviewed.
Gillway said he had not been aware of reports of police interference with the media until earlier this week.
"We are certainly not taking this lightly," said Gillway. "We don't want to disenfranchise the media, ever. We are not going to allow that to happen."
"We will take appropriate action to ensure that it doesn't repeat itself," he said. Gillway said that does not necessarily mean anyone would lose their job, and may mean additional training for the department, particularly in regards to media access.
"A lot of good policing has come out of what people have captured on cell phones," said Gillway. "This is the world we live in."
Chief LaHaye said he would not be doing an internal review of the actions of his officers on November 28.
"I was involved," he said. "There is nothing further at this point within the department."
The Searsport Fire Department
These current questions of fair process and undue influence bring up a situation that seemed like a closed chapter: Jim Dittmeyer's influence as the Searsport Fire Chief.
Dittmeyer's support of the DCP?project was well known and he was forced to resign from his position as fire chief in June 2012 when his personal support for the project crossed over into his professional life. It was clear that he had posted derogatory comments against those opposed to the DCP development on websites.
Dittmeyer's dismissal was done in executive session as a personnel matter, so there is no public record.
But there are public records with a state agency that indicate Dittmeyer was taking advantage of his position of power as a public official to put pressure on those opposed to the development.
In early June, prior to Dittmeyer's dismissal, The Free Press requested documents from the staff attorney at the Office of Professional and Occupational Regulation, which oversees the Maine Fuel Board.
After the fire chief's dismissal, The Free Press received evidence from the Maine Fuel Board that Dittmeyer had repeatedly asked the board to inspect the Searsport Shores Campground for propane fuel storage violations during the winter and spring of 2012.
Contacting the Maine Fuel Board to look into a violation is routine. It's what followed that wasn't.
Dittmeyer initially contacted the Maine Fuel Board in February, saying he had a tip that the campground was selling propane without a license.
Peter Holmes, a Maine Fuel Board senior inspector, agreed to look into it and sent an inspector to the campground twice. No one was at home both times the inspectors visited.
On March 1, 2012, Dittmeyer went above Holmes' head, writing to the commissioner of the Office of Professional and Occupational Regulation to say he had contacted the Maine Fuel Board and been twice assured that a fuel inspector would look into the violation but he had seen no evidence they had.
Dittmeyer's email states that the campground was illegally selling propane.
"I know they have sold propane right up until now," he states in his March 1 email. Dittmeyer was referring to the owners of the campground: Astrig and Steven Tanguay, who initially led the opposition to the DCP development proposal.
In fact, they hadn't been selling propane and the campground was closed.
In a March 20, 2012, email to his boss, Commissioner Anne Head, Holmes explains that the Tanguays' license had expired, but the campground was "not open and they are not dispensing LP now ... the owner is well aware they cannot dispense LP until it is licensed."
The inspector found minor repairs that needed to be fixed for the Tanguays to get a new license. The Tanguays agreed to comply within 30 days.
Holmes said it was not unusual to get a tip from a fire chief or other town officials about a potential fuel violation, but that he had never, in his experience, been contacted repeated times to make sure the potential violation was investigated by the fuel board.
"It was unusual," Holmes said, in a conversation with The Free Press in June 2012.
Holmes, in his email response to Commissioner Head, also wrote the following in the March 20 email:
"The story behind the story is that the owner of the campground and the Fire Chief are on complete opposite sides of the ongoing issue of a proposed multi-million gallon LP tank in Searsport and apparently have had several interactions on the subject. The owner of the campground has been a very vocal opponent to the tank and the Fire Chief as well as the town administration is in favor of it. The reason that this dispenser has reached the level that it has, is most likely due to this political squabble over the LP tank more than to the fact that they let their license lapse."
Then Peter Holmes, a public employee who earns his living from public tax dollars, turned his attention back to what the public had entrusted him to do: keep them safe.
In his conclusion of the email to his boss, Holmes wrote:
"The focus of our actions has been and will continue to be to get this dispenser safe and properly licensed."
The propane license for the Tanguays' campground was renewed before they opened for the 2012 season.
Public hearings on the proposed development resumed without incident for two nights after November 28. More public meetings with new information on the DCP development proposal are scheduled to be held January 16 to 18, 2013.