Penobscot County Commissioner Andre Cushing III at the commissioners' meeting on January 3, 2023. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The chair of the Penobscot County Commission voted to hire a lobbyist he personally worked with as recently as last year.

Andre Cushing, who has been a county commissioner for almost five years, did not recuse himself from a vote in January for the county to enter into a contract with Patriot Consulting, which is owned and operated by Zachary Lingley, a Republican lobbyist and political operative.

State records show that Cushing has had a business relationship with Lingley, putting him in potential conflict with Penobscot County’s policy requiring employees to avoid “real and potential conflicts of interest.” The ethics policy states that county employees should not carry on county business with a firm in which the county employee has an interest.

State law also requires municipal and county officials to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest by disclosing relationships or abstaining from certain decisions.

Cushing worked with Lingley throughout 2022 as a lobbyist associate, according to Maine Ethics Commission records. He specifically worked on advocacy efforts for kratom, an herbal substance that can produce opioid- and stimulant-like effects.

A lobbyist associate is a partner or employee of a lobbyist who spends more than eight hours a month lobbying on behalf of a client, which for Cushing was the American Kratom Association.

The revelation about Cushing’s ties, which came after the Bangor Daily News reported this week on the county hiring Lingley, raises additional questions about the agreement and Cushing’s governance. In 2017, when Cushing was the former assistant Senate majority leader, the political committees he ran were fined $9,000 for violating the state’s campaign finance laws.

In an interview on Tuesday, Cushing said he disclosed his business relationship with Lingley to fellow commissioners Peter Baldacci and David Marshall before the vote on Jan. 31, and that he had ended his arrangement with Lingley.

But Baldacci did not remember Cushing ever disclosing his connection, he said. The commissioners’ meetings are typically recorded, but the county apparently did not turn its camera back on after exiting an executive session to vote, so there is no record of any public discussion about Lingley’s contract.

“I don’t recall it being said, and I was certainly not aware of the fact that they had any kind of direct relationship,” Baldacci said. “I was just not happy with the whole concept of hiring our own lobbyists for this effort.”

County Administrator Scott Adkins said there was some conversation between the commissioners and himself in which Cushing acknowledged he knew Lingley. However, Adkins said there was “no direct involvement that anybody was aware of.”

Baldacci abstained, and the two remaining commissioners voted to hire Lingley to advocate at the Maine Legislature for state funding of county deputies to patrol rural areas and for a new jail.

Baldacci recused himself because he believed he had a conflict of interest, he said, putting his actions in contrast with Cushing’s. He had thought the county was entering into a contract with Democratic lobbyist Jim Mitchell of Mitchell Tardy Jackson, who is his cousin, he said.

While the county did not hire this lobbying firm directly, Lingley has subcontracted some of his work to Mitchell, Mitchell said.

When a reporter asked Cushing on Tuesday why he did not recuse himself from the vote to hire Lingley, he defended his actions, saying there would not have been enough commissioners left to vote on the contract.

“If I had not been able to vote, I’m not sure we would have had the appropriate votes to move forward,” Cushing said. “I had ended my relationship with him on a project prior to the vote that was taken.”

When pressed further about whether his involvement in approving the contract was inappropriate, Cushing ended the call.

Reports filed with the Maine Ethics Commission state that Cushing and Lingley received $6,500 for lobbying at the legislative and executive branch in 2022 on behalf of the American Kratom Association, a group “protecting the rights of all Americans to legally consume safe kratom,” according to its website. He was also a commissioner at the time.

The Drug Enforcement Administration considers kratom, which comes from the leaves of a tropical tree in Southeast Asia, to be a “drug and chemical of concern” because it can change how the brain works, causing psychoactive effects as well as psychological and physiological dependence. Kratom is legal in Maine.

This is the second time Penobscot County has hired Lingley, according to Cushing. It also hired him last year to lobby for the same initiatives.

Lingley has ties to the other Penobscot County commissioner who voted in favor of his contract.

During the 2022 commissioners election, Patriot Consulting and Star City PAC, for which Lingley is listed as treasurer, donated to Marshall’s successful bid to unseat former Commissioner Laura Sanborn.

In that same election, Cushing was the top individual donor for Marshall’s campaign. Marshall did not answer a phone call or text seeking an interview.

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...