The lobbying firm hired by Penobscot County to push state lawmakers for funding for a new jail and deputies has withdrawn from its agreement due to “negative publicity.”
In a letter sent Friday to the Penobscot County Commissioners, Zach Lingley, the owner of Patriot Consulting, and Jim Mitchell of Mitchell Tardy Jackson — who was working as a subcontractor with Lingley — said his company is requesting to withdraw from its $48,000 agreement with the county.
Patriot Consulting’s withdrawal came a day after the Bangor Daily News published a story detailing the direct business connection between Penobscot County commissioner Andre Cushing and Lingley.
“We take this action not because we believe there has been an ethical lapse on our part, but simply because we believe our ability to advance your interests at the Legislature has been modestly compromised by the negative publicity; therefore, we believe your interests would best be served by engaging other professionals to assist you,” Lingley and Mitchells’ letter said.
It was not immediately clear if the commissioners had to approve Patriot Consulting’s withdrawal from the contract.
Cushing, who has been a county commissioner for almost five years, did not recuse himself from a vote earlier this year for the county to enter into a contract with Patriot Consulting. According to state lobbying records, Cushing worked with Lingley throughout last year as a lobbyist associate, lobbying on behalf of the American Kratom Association.
Cushing’s business relationship with Lingley potentially puts the commissioner at odds 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.
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.
Last year, the county hired Mitchell Tardy Jackson to lobby on behalf of the county, but the work from that agreement was contracted out to Lingley, according to a March 24, 2022 email from Mitchell to the county. The county paid the firm $9,000 for the work.
Those services, carried out by Lingley and paid for by the county in April 2022, happened at the same time as Cushing’s lobbying work with Lingley, according to records from the Maine Ethics Commission.
When a reporter asked Cushing 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.
If Cushing recused himself from the vote, it would have only left commissioner David Marshall as Peter Baldacci, the other remaining commissioner had already recused himself from the vote.
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 Mitchell, who is his cousin, he said.
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.