The Strimling Affair, Part II
Nothing to see here?
by Chris Busby
Imagine, if you will, the following scenario.
You are the editor of a daily newspaper in Maine, or the news director of a television or radio station, sitting at your desk and chomping on a cigar (just like in the movies). A reporter bursts through the door with a big scoop. Just weeks after his re-election, Gov. Paul LePage has left his wife, Ann, and taken up with his campaign manager in a pricy hotel in downtown Augusta. The campaign manager is also president of a lobbying and P.R. firm with deep political ties and a client list that includes companies that do business with state government. This is not a rumor: the reporter has LePage on record acknowledging his separation from Ann and the identity of his mistress, who is also still legally married.
You do one of the following: a.) Run the story as soon as possible, or b.) Tell the reporter none of this is newsworthy and refuse to cover the story.
Which option do you think best serves the public’s interest? If you chose a., you and I agree. If you chose b., chances are you really are an editor or news director in Maine, because that’s what nearly all of them have chosen to do under very similar circumstances.
I first got the tip in late January: Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling had left his wife of 14 years, Mary Beeaker, and taken up with his campaign manager, Stephanie Clifford, about a month after his inauguration. Clifford is a partner and president of Baldacci Communications, a lobbying and P.R. firm she runs with the former governor’s older brother, Bob Baldacci, and Bob’s wife, Elizabeth. Their client list includes numerous heavy-hitters in Maine political and business circles, some of which do business with the city.
I didn’t make much headway on the story until a more specific tip arrived a few weeks later: the pair had been staying at the Hyatt Place Portland in the Old Port, a pricy new hotel built and owned by local developer and commercial landlord Tim Soley’s company. The next morning, at 7 a.m., I parked outside the hotel and sat in my car drinking coffee, waiting for the mayor to exit. Shortly before 7:30 a.m., Strimling strode out the door and hung a right toward City Hall.
Gotcha! I thought, feeling like Holden on The Killing, a crime drama my fiancée and I had recently been binge-watching.
I called Mayor Strimling later that morning and he put the following facts on the record: he and his wife are separated and he is now in a relationship with Clifford. He said he would disclose his relationship with Baldacci Communications anyway, before conducting city business involving the firm or its current clients, because the firm still occasionally files campaign finance paperwork for him, so this romantic relationship does not create any new potential for conflicts of interest. Beyond that, Strimling declared he has nothing further to say on the matter.
Of course, I had a few more things to say about it, so I made the affair the subject of my column for the Bangor Daily News that week. Conscious of the BDN’s editorial prudishness around sex scandals, I framed the revelation in the context of the question, Why should this matter?, and then listed my answers to that question.
One answer has to do with public trust in elected officials. Strimling ran for office last fall as a stable, happily married man who credited his wife, a nurse, with providing the crucial support that made his campaign possible. That’s who Portland voters thought they were casting their ballot for last November. Had voters known that Strimling would leave his wife for his campaign manager two months after Election Day, I daresay the outcome would have been different and Mike Brennan would still be leading the city.
I can’t prove when the extramarital relationship really began, but I strongly suspect Mayor Strimling misrepresented himself to the people of Portland, including his wife, last fall. That matters.
Another answer involves all the potential conflicts of interest the relationship creates. To contend that a firm’s periodic clerical duties for your previous political campaign are potentially as influential upon your decision-making as your intimate personal relationship with the firm’s president is absurd. Mayor Strimling might disclose his relationship with Baldacci Communications and its clients before casting a vote that could benefit them, or he may not. If the public is ignorant of the true nature of his connection to the firm, we’ll never know when he’s failed to uphold his ethical duty to disclose it or recuse himself from a vote.
Furthermore, the opportunities for conflicts of interest are hardly limited to City Council votes. Unethical advocacy of policies that later benefit a lover or a friend can take place anytime. For example, last decade Bob Baldacci initiated the push to put a $100 million private development on the publicly owned Maine State Pier. That bid ultimately failed after a highly politicized fight, but one of the first big ideas Mayor Strimling has promoted is a renewed effort to develop private business on the pier. Coincidence?
Lastly, the column made the point that it’s never good for a powerful public official to be carrying on a romantic relationship they are loathe to disclose. That situation creates opportunities for someone with self-serving or malicious interests to use the secret as leverage against the official to get what they want. That’s a big reason why David Petraeus’ affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, cost him his job as Director of the C.I.A. — it had the potential to compromise national security.
The BDN refused to run the column. In short, their argument is that Strimling has not failed to disclose the relationship before conducting city business that could benefit Clifford’s firm or clients, so there’s nothing newsworthy to report. Hours after their decision, I posted a slightly expanded version of the column on thebollard.com (“The Strimling Affair,” Feb. 24, 2016).
I wasn’t sure how other media outlets would respond to the story, but I did not expect the deafening silence that followed. With a few exceptions — most notably syndicated political columnist (and former Bollard media critic) Al Diamon’s column the week of March 7, headlined “What You Don’t Know” — no journalist working in print, online or on the airwaves had made a peep about it in the month following my initial post.
In the meantime, the Portland Press Herald provided in-depth coverage of Don McLean’s marital strife, down to such details as “the intensity of his rage and the craziness in his eyes.” This guy hasn’t had a hit song since I was born 45 years ago, but his personal life is apparently more consequential than that of the mayor of Maine’s largest city.
One outlet you’d assume would be having a field day with this news is WGAN, the conservative AM talk-radio station whose popular local morning show hosts, Ken Altshuler and Mike Violette, love to make hay of Maine politicians’ foibles. Why haven’t you been hearing about this juicy political story on GAN? Perhaps because Strimling hired Altshuler, an attorney who specializes in family law and plays the role of the liberal half of the talk-show duo, to represent him in this divorce case, effectively muzzling what could have been an especially embarrassing source of criticism (Strimling has also hosted radio shows on the station in the past). But I’m just guessing — Altshuler didn’t respond to my request for comment.
Meanwhile, I’ve spoken with numerous people who were aware of the relationship before I got that initial tip. Almost without exception, all of them are members of what you could call Portland’s political and business elite: politicians (current and former), lawyers and real estate developers. I find that unnerving and not a little galling. It pisses me off to know the muckety-mucks around town are all in on the mayor’s dirty little secret, as are the mainstream media gatekeepers they hobnob with at ribbon-cuttings and cocktail parties or whatever, but the gatekeepers don’t think it’s appropriate to share this secret with the unwashed masses. It’s more responsible, journalistically, to keep them in the dark, these gatekeepers think. Mayor Strimling will disclose it when and if he thinks he should disclose it, they figure, and they can report it then. After all, he’s done nothing to indicate he’s the least bit untrustworthy.
I didn’t trust Strimling before he got elected. Now I’m really suspicious of his motives, and I’m hardly alone.
For example, last month I got an e-mail from a reader who told me Clifford’s firm is working for Unified Parking Partners, the company that’s leasing privately owned parking lots all over downtown and charging people to park there. The high rates and fees they demand, and the company’s practice of booting vehicles that overstay their welcome, has caused considerable angst over the past year or so. How does Mayor Strimling respond to complaints or requests involving that company, which very recently hired Baldacci Communications?
Neither Clifford nor Dan McNutt, managing partner of UPP, responded to my phone messages seeking information about this arrangement. Instead I got an e-mail from Elizabeth Baldacci, who wrote, “While I don’t usually discuss my private contracts with the press, I do have my client’s consent to let you know I am currently working with them on corporate communications planning.”
Well, there you have it, folks: corporate communications planning. Glad we cleared that up. And no, we cannot expect the mayor’s girlfriend’s firm to tell the press who her company is working for — unless the client is OK with that, and a reporter knows to even ask about the business relationship in the first place, assuming he or she has the courage or initiative to inquire, which most demonstrably do not.
But don’t worry. Mayor Strimling has promised to disclose any potential conflicts of interest. And again, what has he ever done to make you question his trustworthiness?