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Gov Threatens to Withdraw Support for Maine Tribal Commission
04/08/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Gov. Paul LePage is threatening to withdraw his support for a groundbreaking tribal-state initiative, which was set up to investigate the forced placement of Indian children into white foster care. The governor 's spokeswoman says LePage believes that Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap has a conflict of interest serving as a member of the Wabanaki-State Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The announcement comes one week after the governor reportedly threatened to withdraw support for several Passamaquoddy-backed initiatives because of a dispute with the tribe over its elver fishing management plan. Susan Sharon has more.

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Gov Threatens to Withdraw Support for Maine Tribal Listen
 Duration:
3:45

Matthew Dunlap

When Gov. LePage and the leaders of Maine's five Indian tribes signed the agreement creating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission last June, they set into motion a two-year process to uncover past abuses of Maine's child welfare system.

For decades, until as late as the 1990's, Indian children were systematically removed from their communities and sent to white boarding schools or foster homes. For some, the separation was permanent. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was praised as a first-in-the-nation effort to heal relations between the state and the tribes.

But now, the governor believes it's inappropriate for Secretary of State Matt Dunlap (right) to serve on the five-member commission and says he'll withdraw his support unless Dunlap steps down. Dunlap says he has no plans to resign.

"There's no mechanism to replace us as commissioners," he says. "So if I were to step down that would start an erosion of the Commission that I don't think could be reversed."

Like the other commissioners, Dunlap says he went through an application and interview process, and was thoroughly vetted before being formally seated in a ceremony in February. During his interview process, Dunlap says he recalls asking, and being asked, about possible conflicts of interest by his interviewers and by members of the governor's staff.

"And the reality is there is no conflict," he says. "The policy areas that are overseen by the secretary of state have no overlap whatsoever with any of the policy areas that are involved with child welfare, the native tribes or anything.""

In a written statement, the governor's spokesperson, Adrienne Bennett, said that because Dunlap holds a fiduciary and ethical relationship of trust with the state of Maine as its secretary of state, and simultaneously serves as a Truth and Reconciliation commissioner, the governor believes the independence of the commission is compromised.

"Mr. Dunlap's capacity as Secretary of State makes it impossible for him to serve independently or in a personal capacity as commissioner, " Bennett wrote.

But some members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe question the timing of the governor's announcement. A week ago former Passamaquoddy tribal councilor Fred Moore was present for a telephone call in which he says LePage threatened to withdraw support for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a tribal casino and an executive order unless the tribe agreed to back off its own elver fishery management plan.

"It sounds now like he had other reasons for withdrawing that support," Moore says.

Moore says he's confused by the governor's about-face on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, especially because until now LePage has been seen as making strides toward improving strained tribal-state relations.

And Passamaquoddy tribal member Esther Attean, the acting director for the commission, says she's confused as well. She says she's received no formal notice from the governor's office about Secretary of State Matt Dunlap's position.

"I have yet to understand, or see any legal analysis from the governor's office really explaining what the conflict of interest is," she says.

Attean says several attorneys were among those on the selection panel who vetted commissioners, and none have raised any red flags.

Meanwhile, Dunlap says he's received support from his fellow commissioners to stay on the job, which is entirely voluntary. There is no state money involved in the project, and the governor's spokesperson Adrienne Bennett says state workers for the Department of Health and Human Services will be allowed to participate in the process even if the governor's support is withdrawn.

Photo courtesy Maine Secretary of State's Office.

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