Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Verizon angles to keep state business

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Democratic governor John Baldacci had a private sit-down with Ivan Seidenberg, the president and CEO of Verizon, November 30. The meeting wasn’t publicized in advance and got only a small amount of coverage after the fact.

None of that coverage mentioned the roughly $6 million Verizon earns from providing state agencies with telephone services (that total doesn’t include in-state and out-of-state long-distance calls, which, according to state technology chief Dick Thompson, are also provided by Verizon at a rate of 2.98 cents per minute).

The meeting came just days after the staff of the Public Utilities Commission issued a devastating report recommending that regulators reject the proposed buyout of Verizon’s telephone landlines by FairPoint Communications (see “No Raises for Seven Years,” November 16, and “No Raises — It Gets Better,” online November 20, both by Jeff Inglis).

Neither Verizon nor Baldacci’s folks will say specifically what was discussed, but Verizon Maine spokesman Peter Reilly says the meeting was intended “to discuss Verizon’s role in the state in the future,” specifically the fact that “Verizon is going to be continuing to invest in businesses in the state.”

It’s fair to ask what business, given that PUC analyses of Verizon’s investment in landlines and consumer services such as Internet access suggest the company has done little, if any at all, in recent years (see “Internet Disconnect,” by Jeff Inglis, 24).

The answer may explain why Seidenberg wanted to talk to the business-friendly Baldacci: Verizon will continue to invest in wireless service in Maine, as well as “enterprise services,” Reilly says. He wouldn’t explain what “enterprise services” are, but the company’s Web site does — telephone service and high-speed Internet communications for large businesses.

The meeting between Seidenberg and Baldacci was first reported on, a blog closely monitoring the merger’s progress, where speculation ran rampant about whether Verizon was trying to cut a deal with Baldacci. All sides deny that.

Asked if Seidenberg was trying to make nice with Maine officials after the PUC staff’s report repeatedly accused Verizon of hurting Mainers by spending too little on service quality and upgrades, Reilly's answer was short: “All I can confirm is that Mr. Seidenberg met with Governor Baldacci.”

But if Verizon was trying to hang onto its revenue from public coffers, Thompson (who heads the state agency that arranges phone service for state offices) may have killed it: if the sale goes through, he says, the state’s phone provider would become FairPoint. Unless the gov says otherwise, of course.

Press Releases: Plum Creek watchdog

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Thanks to a Phoenix reader, Maine residents now know something the Portland Press Herald was not telling them: that the chief executive officer of the development company that wants to build nearly 1000 units of homes and condos plus two resort hotels in Maine’s North Woods joined the board of directors of the newspaper’s parent company 18 months ago.

To call the Plum Creek project controversial is an understatement, as attested by the 60 or so stories and editorials that the Press Herald has published on the subject in the past year and a half.

Yet none of those pieces — not even the editorials that questioned the deal — disclosed that Rick Holley, CEO of Plum Creek Timber, the project’s proposed developer, joined the board of directors of the Blethen Corporation (the family-owned company that owns the Press Herald) back in May 2006. Nor did they disclose that Holley joined at the personal request of patriarch Frank Blethen, as a Plum Creek spokeswoman told the Portland Phoenix last week.

In a December 2 article, PPH environment reporter John Richardson detailed Plum Creek’s donations to Maine politicians, quoting Bruce Freed, executive director of the Center for Political Accountability in Washington DC: “What they’re trying to is develop relationships and influence decision-making and policy.”

But Richardson’s story didn’t mention another way Plum Creek could influence decision-making and policy — namely, through close connections with the newspaper’s owner.

It’s possible, as Poynter Institute ethicist Kelly McBride notes, that the paper’s editorial team may not have actually known that Holley had joined the board. (If they did know, she says, they should have disclosed it earlier.) As it was, the disclosure came after the Phoenix, prompted by posts on, called Richardson and others at the Press Herald.

On Sunday, a Richardson article about Plum Creek added that Holley also sits on the board of the Seattle Times Company, though he (or his editors) took pains to distance Holley from the Press Herald, specifying that the company’s Maine newspapers (the Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel, and the Coastal Journal) have “a separate board of directors” on which Holley does not serve.

But not every article addressing Plum Creek in Sunday’s paper carried the disclosure: columnist Bill Nemitz left out the relationship between the people who sign his paycheck and the man at the helm of the largest private landowner in the country, who just happens to be the proposer of one of the largest land-development projects in Maine history (see “Up Plum Creek Without A Paddle,” by Yanni Peary, November 30).

That omission, and the 18 months of silence throughout the paper, fit a pattern of concealing the connections between the newspaper and Plum Creek: in the 20 mentions of Plum Creek in the Seattle Times since May 2006, none have disclosed Holley’s involvement.

Corey Digiacinto, communications manager for the Seattle Times Company, would not say how many directors the company has, nor whether Holley is a voting member of the board (versus an advisory one). She says the company doesn’t normally talk about its corporate structure, but did so “in this case, for reasons of disclosure.”

Why now, though, if Holley has been on the board for 18 months? Digiacinto referred that question to Press Herald/Telegram editor Jeannine Guttman.

Guttman and Richardson did not return phone calls seeking comment, as is the paper’s general practice when receiving inquiries from other media organizations.

But with Phoenix readers keeping watch where the Press Herald fears to tread, they’ll have to do better next time.

Disclosure: I like plums, and have swum in creeks. With a tip of the hat to the poster named “Jay” on

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Courts allow photographs of documents

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Back in September, we told you that a Maine judge had issued a secret, unwritten order barring people from taking pictures of court documents (see "Speak Now, or Forever Pay for Copies," by Jeff Inglis, September 28). The practice, a popular tactic among reporters and members of the public alike to avoid the expense of buying official copies (at $2 for the first page and $1 for each additional page), had been permitted by court officials for more than five years. Last week, a memo went out from state-court administrator Ted Glessner to all Maine court clerks and their staffs re-authorizing the practice.

There has been no formal change of policy, but that too is in the works, according to Maine Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, who says the court system expects to take another two months to finalize new rules regarding using cameras in courtrooms during proceedings. The two topics are related because the no-cameras-in-courtrooms rule at the moment bars cameras from entering courthouse buildings at all, which would obviously prevent taking pictures of paperwork.

In the meantime, regarding the specific act of photographing documents, there will be “an internal order that tells everybody it’s okay,” Saufley says.

“It’s perfectly appropriate for people to use cameras to take photographs of documents,” she says, noting that existing rules — and the ones under consideration to replace them — bar people from photographing only participants in a trial, including judges, witnesses, attorneys, and defendants, without the judge’s prior written permission.

The larger problem is that “every single cell phone sold today has a camera in it,” Saufley says — and many laptop computers, too. Cell phones, cameras, and laptop computers are banned from the federal courthouse in Portland (though laptops are allowed for a “privileged few,” such as attorneys working on cases, according to federal-courthouse staff).

Saufley says the Maine courts have a tradition of being more open to electronics than the federal courts. (Also, the federal limits are at least partly offset by Internet access to court filings, which are not available for state-court cases.)

But while people can again bring cameras into state courthouses for the purposes of photographing documents, and Saufley appears unenthusiastic about banning cell phones and laptops from courtrooms, using cameras during trials and other court proceedings will likely continue to be restricted.

Court officials have talked to members of the state’s television media about their needs, and the state’s advisory Committee on Media and Courts is at work on crafting rules that would, in effect, state that “we don’t want to stop people from bringing cameras into the courtroom,” Saufley says, but “you can’t use cameras” there without advance permission.