Follow on Twitter @AlexLNunes
I’m skeptical of bold claims.
That’s why I wondered last week if peace activist Bruce Gagnon was indulging in a little hyperbole when he sent me an email alleging a local newspaper, the Maine legislature, and the city of Bath’s police department were all abdicating their duty to the public and instead doing the bidding of Navy contractor Bath Iron Works.
Gagnon is currently leading the campaign against a proposed $60-million tax credit to BIW, a builder of Navy destroyers and a subsidiary of defense industry behemoth General Dynamics.
“The Bath PD was outsourced to BIW/GD,” Gagnon’s email read, “the Times Record newspaper has been outsourced to BIW/GD, and the Maine state legislature has been outsourced to BIW/GD.”
But, after looking into each of these claims, I can’t say I disagree.
I’ll start with the Bath Police Department, which Gagnon accuses of being “outsourced” to a corporate entity. In this instance, Gagnon’s allegation is backed up by a pretty credible source: a state Superior Court justice.
Last month, judge Daniel Billings acquitted Gagnon and eight other defendants arrested and charged last April after staging a protest at a Bath Iron Works “christening” ceremony for a newly constructed warship.
“Here, the testimony is basically the police department is outsourced to BIW on these events,” Billings said in his decision, which was videotaped by activist Regis Tremblay and posted on YouTube.
As Billings saw it, Bath Lieutenant Robert Savary was “taking his direction” from the company’s security personnel and “arrests were going to be made or not based upon” the discretion of Bath Iron Works.
Billings concluded: “That’s not how this is supposed to work.”
The justice, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, went on, criticizing the city for its lack of clear rules on how it polices protests. Billings seemed to go as far as to suggest city officials were leaving themselves vulnerable to a lawsuit.
“Law enforcement is given unfettered discretion,” Billings said. “They don’t have an ordinance, and the city is really putting themselves at legal risk.”
When I contacted two members of the Bath City Council, I didn’t get the sense they were taking the word of a sitting judge too seriously.
Council Chairwoman Mari Eosco wrote back in what appeared to be a hurried email: “I’ve heard different there are different interpretations of what Justice Billings has said.”
Eosco continued, “The council does not determine a departments protocol, therefore I do not have a comment.”
Council member Julie Ambrosino said much the same: “I have read conflicting information of Justice Billings’ ruling concerning this event and Bath police involvement. Bath city council does not give instruction to the police department on how they handle procedure. I have no comment to make.”
These responses, frankly, struck me as ludicrous. Are they trying to argue the city council has no say over its police department’s policies? If the council doesn’t “give instruction,” then who does? Does the police chief have impunity? Has martial law been declared in Bath, Maine?
Eosco and Ambrosino both claimed there are conflicting accounts of Justice Billings’ ruling. But his comments seemed pretty unequivocal to me. They can also be viewed by anyone with an Internet connection and the time to sit through a 12-minute video that does not appear to be significantly edited.
Even if Justice Billings’ ruling was ambiguous, is it really that difficult for city council members to get a copy of the transcript from that day or set up a meeting with Billings to get some clarification?
My instinct is Ambrosino and Eosco are less confused than they are uninterested.
Bath Chief of Police Michael Field and Lieutenant Savary did not respond to my requests for comment on this subject.
Logan Perkins, a lawyer who represented three of the nine defendants at trial, said in a phone interview that court testimony “suggested that the highest level of collaboration, and preplanning, and decision-making” between BIW security and the police department “had essentially rendered the Bath Police Department into an extension of Bath Iron Works’ private security.”
She said, “They’re actively subverting the Constitution in favor of the private entity’s interest. They’re more concerned with enforcing what Bath Iron Works wants than they are with enforcing the United States Constitution. To me, that’s the scandal here.”
The Times Record
Gagnon’s second example of an entity being “outsourced” to BIW is The Times Record newspaper of Brunswick.
For three years now, the group PeaceWorks has had a regular column in the paper. Activists rotate as authors and educate readers on the concerns of the local peace movement on a twice-monthly basis.
But, as debate over the proposed 20-year, $60-million tax break heated up at the capitol in Augusta and opponents placed dozens of letters to the editor and op-eds in newspapers across the state, The Times Record began applying considerable scrutiny to the PeaceWorks column.
Executive Editor John Swinconeck took particular issue with an article written by Gagnon, who began a hunger strike in protest of BIW last month, titled, “The Tragedy of Corporate Welfare in Maine.”
These were Swinconeck’s specific concerns:
- Gagnon’s reference to conversations he had outside the BIW shipyard with unnamed workers not in favor of the tax bill. “I’m afraid we’re going into hearsay territory with this,” Swinconeck wrote in an email to a PeaceWorks member that Gagnon later sent around to supporters.
- The use of a statistic saying 43,000 children in Maine live in poverty. “[W]here did that number come from?” Swinconeck wrote.
- Gagnon’s suggestion that proponents of the tax deal have claimed BIW officials “might have to shut their doors and move” if the company doesn’t get a tax break. “Does he have a source for this?” the editor wrote.
- And finally: “If Bruce hasn’t eaten since he went on hunger strike two weeks ago, how is he still able to demonstrate outside BIW?”
After reading Swinconeck’s comments and Gagnon’s piece, I got the sense Swinconeck did not come to the editing process with fair intentions.
To call descriptions of Gagnon’s conversations with Bath Iron Works employees hearsay is a stretch. Hearsay, as my handy dictionary says, means “rumor” or “information received from other people that one cannot adequately substantiate.”
Yes, it’s always better to have all names cited in an article. But, because Gagnon is the author and the person who spoke directly to the workers, I can’t help but wonder if Swinconeck is really concerned or if he’s just looking for any red flag. Gagnon’s articles have appeared many times in numerous publications, and all indications are he is an honest writer and not a fabricator.
I also can’t help but see a double standard here.
If BIW General Counsel Jon Fitzgerald, who’s been the public face of the company’s tax credit campaign, told lawmakers the company’s workers support the bill, would The Times Record call that hearsay and ban it from its pages? I doubt it.
Also, consider this: BIW brass have claimed bidding for Navy contracts between the Maine shipyard and Mississippi-based Ingalls Shipbuilding is more competitive today than ever before.
But has that claim been seriously examined by journalists? After following this story closely in local media, I’ve not seen evidence that a single reporter has called up a Navy procurement official for some context. So is the very crux of BIW’s case mere hearsay?
The 43,000 figure concerning the number of children in Maine living in poverty comes from the KIDS COUNT data center, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It covers the year 2016, and it’s easy to find online.
Swinconeck’s suggestion that BIW hasn’t said it could leave Maine if it doesn’t receive a tax break is another example of the editor stretching a reasonable interpretation in order to find a point of contention.
While it’s possible no one has explicitly said this in a public meeting, BIW officials have employed fear tactics and more than implied uncertainty would likely follow if the company did not receive a tax deal.
Furthermore: emails between Rep. Jennifer DeChant (D-Bath), the bill’s sponsor, and Jon Fitzgerald, the BIW lawyer, obtained through a Maine Freedom of Access Act request show the two discussed the prospect of a shipyard closure when determining their “talking points” to counter pushback from activists.
“Can you remind the shipyard that failed?” DeChant wrote in one email to Fitzgerald last December. “Where was it? What was it named?”
Lastly, Swinconeck clearly insults Gagnon when he questions the validity of the activist’s hunger strike. Gagnon has said he is subsisting on water, juices, and broth, which is common practice for someone on a hunger strike. To intimate he’s some kind of fake is a low blow.
In the end, Swinconeck decided to cancel the entire PeaceWorks column going forward. “I’ve been ruminating on this for a couple months,” Swinconeck wrote in an email to PeaceWorks member Rosalie Paul that was forwarded to me, “and I no longer feel as though Peaceworks’ interests and agenda are compatible with The Times Record’s mission.”
I emailed Swinconeck to see if he’d agree to an interview with me. He replied, “Thank you for the opportunity, but I’ll pass.”
It’s true that The Times Record has published well reported news articles by Nathan Strout that did strive for balance on the BIW debate, and it has run opinion pieces from activists. But “the optics,” as pundits like to say, look bad when a newspaper editor pulls the plug on an ongoing column by a prominent peace group in the middle of what’s arguably the most heated debate in Maine in years on a topic central to the cause of those activists.
The great irony is that, in the end, the Bangor Daily News, a paper with a much larger circulation, published Gagnon’s column.
Rep. Jennifer DeChant
Bruce Gagnon’s argument is incontrovertible when it comes to the Maine legislature and specifically Rep. Jennifer DeChant, who is sponsoring the proposal to award $60-million in tax credits to Bath Iron Works.
Emails turned over by the state show undeniable collaboration between DeChant and BIW General Counsel Jon Fitzgerald in hopes of countering the rising tide of resistance to their bill.
DeChant sought county-specific employment figures from BIW, including numbers for regions represented by two key lawmakers. DeChant even included the last names of these officials in her request to BIW. DeChant and Fitzgerald also discussed how to use BIW’s competitor, Ingalls Shipbuilding, and the subsidies it receives from Mississippi taxpayers as a lever to sway public opinion.
There is also every reason to believe DeChant allowed the company to write the bill on its own behalf.
“[H]appy to host a working lunch or whatever works for you,” Fitzgerald wrote to DeChant last December. “At that time, I will have the expanded list of city/town employment, a draft 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.”
DeChant was so willing to let Bath Iron Works take the lead that a consultant for the company, Daniel Walker of Preti Flaherty, offered to deliver a draft of the legislation to state officials for her.
“Jennifer, Attached please find the draft for submission to the Revisor’s Office,” Walker wrote in mid-December. “I’d be happy to submit if you’d like. If you submit, 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.”
When I spoke to Bruce Gagnon by phone earlier this week, he seemed to have resigned himself to the fact that the Maine legislature and governor will approve LD1781, handing over $60-million over 20 years to BIW.
This week, legislators on the bicameral Taxation Committee voted eight to two in favor of the bill, clearing a “key hurdle,” as the Bangor Daily News put it, and sending the legislation on to the full legislature.
But, even if the bill ultimately becomes law, I still think Gagnon and other activists are victors here.
In the last three months, they’ve proven their case. Bath Iron Works and General Dynamics never did that. The activists have undeniably changed public opinion, and the company is on the defensive.
Jon Fitzgerald, Jennifer DeChant, and others didn’t have an answer when activists pointed out the grotesque amount General Dynamics has spent buying back its own stock on the open market in recent years, inflating its share price and likely enriching its top executives.
When General Dynamics acquired Bath Iron Works in 1995, the company spent $0 on share repurchases that year. In 1997, when BIW was awarded $194-million in tax breaks by Maine and the city of Bath, it spent $60-million, according to the UMass Lowell Center for Industrial Competitiveness.
Last year, it dedicated $1.5-billion to buybacks, the company announced in its most recent quarterly earnings call, and only around $200-million to employee pensions.
Since 2013, the year current CEO Phebe Novakovic became head of the company, General Dynamics has spent nearly $11-billion on stock buybacks.
Fitzgerald never wanted to address any of this, and the emails disclosed by the state of Maine show it.
“I am not going to oblige [Gagnon] and debate this with him on his terms,” Fitzgerald told DeChant in an email late last year.
Fitzgerald is smart. He knew better than to get into an argument he couldn’t win.
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.
If you appreciate reporting at Nunes’ Weekly, please consider making a secure credit card or PayPal donation. It is much appreciated and goes directly to producing more journalism: