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When faced last year with growing criticism over her plans to propose a $60-million tax deal to one of Maine’s largest private employers, state Rep. Jennifer DeChant turned to an apparently reliable ally: the very company she was advocating for.
“Jon- I am sure you have seen the Op Ed piece below,” DeChant said in a Dec. 4 email to Bath Iron Works attorney Jon Fitzgerald, following the publication that same day of a commentary in Portland’s Press Herald by peace activist Bruce Gagnon, titled, “General Dynamics has no business asking for more tax breaks.”
DeChant continued, “I am looking for some talking points to counter this.” She suggested they would be used in an upcoming meeting with constituents.
“Jennifer, Thanks for the note,” Fitzgerald wrote back that same morning. “I should have talking points to you tomorrow.”
Twenty minutes later, DeChant replied, “Thanks. The comparative research will be helpful.”
The email exchanges were made available to a reporter following a Maine Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) records request filed in December. They detail efforts by DeChant and Fitzgerald to counter the chorus of protesters opposed to the proposed subsidy package to Bath Iron Works, a division of defense behemoth General Dynamics.
Fitzgerald provided the requested “Talking Points” the next day, Dec. 5, in a 6:21 p.m. email to DeChant:
“Jennifer, Attached please take a look at these Talking Points. I am happy to discuss and welcome any feedback you may have. They will certainly be refined over time, but I wanted you to have something in hand.
“I am available at your convenience, thanks for your sponsoring.”
The attachment contains what have become familiar public arguments in defense of the tax bill, including the number of Mainers employed and recently hired by BIW, the apparent competitiveness of the shipbuilding industry, and the continual need to upgrade the Bath shipyard, among other points.
DeChant and Fitzgerald did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this story. When reached by phone Gagnon, a leading opponent of the bill, said the email disclosures were “absolutely offensive,” however, “not at all surprising.”
“We’ve always known all along that this thing was coming out of BIW,” he said. “They’re really calling the shots.”
In the emails, DeChant and Fitzgerald also discuss the details of the bill, and choosing cosponsors for the legislation. The emails suggest Bath Iron Works played a key role in the drafting of the legislation, which does not specify the company by name.
“[H]appy to host a working lunch or whatever works for you,” Fitzgerald said in a Dec. 8 email to DeChant. “At that time, I will have the expanded list of city/town BIW employment, a draft of the legislation, a multi-page listing of state, county and municipal assistance provided to Ingalls in Mississippi. It would be great to get specific on co-sponsors and any other details you require.”
Ingalls Shipbuilding is a BIW rival based in Pacagoula, Miss. Bath Iron Works has argued the renewal of a 1997 tax deal from Maine is essential to maintaining the company’s competitiveness with Ingalls, which has received considerable subsidies from its state.
After a reply from DeChant, the two agreed to meet at Bath Iron Works’ offices.
“[W]ould you like me to order lunch?” Fitzgerald wrote. “I would get something from the Sandwich Shop. If that works for you, let me know what you would like, they usually have fish chowder on Friday.”
“Sounds good,” DeChant replied. “Turkey sandwich. Thank you.”
Three days later DeChant followed up with Fitzgerald, indicating she had more “ideas on messaging” and inquiring about a separate shipyard that went bust, presumably to bolster their case for corporate tax credits to BIW.
“Jon- I have some really good ideas on messaging going forward on this project you might find helpful,” DeChant wrote. “Can you remind me the shipyard that failed? Where was it? What was it named?”
Also involved in discussions was attorney Daniel W. Walker, chair of the Government Affairs Practice Group at the firm Preti Flaherty.
“Jennifer, Attached please find the draft for submission to the Revisor’s Office,” Walker wrote on Dec. 14. “I’d be happy to submit if you’d like. If you submit it, please let them know that we are working together on this legislation and that they should feel free to call or contact us with any questions.”
On Dec. 14, DeChant again became concerned about public pressure against her bill, following the publication of a letter to the editor by Gagnon in The Coastal Journal, of Bath.
“Hi Jon- Have you see the LTE by Bruce Gagnon. Is there a communications plan around responding, etc.? I hope this bill is run early. Jennifer.”
“[W]e are working to make sure we are communicating internally as well as externally,” Fitzgerald responded about one hour later. “That being said, Bruce is a one man band who is also using this as an opportunity to raise the profile of his organization and its central message. While I have no doubt about the sincerity of his convictions, he is attempting to frame the debate about General Dynamics and to demonize the ‘big bad corporation.’ I am not going to oblige him and debate with him on his terms in the media.”
Fitzgerald continued, “BIW builds complex ships for the Navy, a customer that actually exists, with money, wants to buy ships, but wants them as inexpensively as they can get them…I will be reaching out to the many Maine businesses which support BIW through products and services to lend their voice.
“I agree earlier in session the better, I have no illusions about the difficulty we may have amidst the Medicaid expansion debate.
“Nevertheless, BIW appreciates your willingness to work in support of this legislative request and will do everything we can to support you in that effort. Jon.”
Alex Nunes is an independent journalist based in Rhode Island. He has contributed reporting to NPR, Rhode Island Public Radio, The Providence Journal, and The Day of New London, Conn., among other news organizations. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a bachelor’s in sociology from Rhode Island College.
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