The Maine Green Energy Alliance, which last week announced it was returning the balance of its $1.1 million government contract to promote home retrofits after it had fallen behind its goals, said it is a nonpartisan organization.

An examination of the Hallowell-based group by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting showed that of its 13-member staff, seven have or had strong connections to the Democratic Party, including being members of the Legislature.

The finding comes a week after the Center’s research revealed the Alliance got its grant with the help of Democratic Gov. John Baldacci and was founded by Baldacci’s former counsel, also a well-connected Democrat.

The seven staff members are:

•  Steve Butterfield, who was a Democratic House member representing Bangor and running for re-election when he was hired in August 2010 as a process facilitator. He was not re-elected.

• Jim Martin, who was a Democratic House member representing Orono and running for re-election when he was hired as a process facilitator. He was not re-elected.

• Shelby Wright, who was a Democratic candidate for the House from Hampden when she was hired in July 2010 to be a community outreach coordinator. She lost the election.

• Melissa Walsh Innes, a Democratic House member from Falmouth, won election in November to a second term in the House and was hired as community outreach coordinator in January.

• Gabrielle Berube worked as the “traveling aide” for Democrat Libby Mitchell during the gubernatorial campaign and prior to that for the Democratic Party. Berube was hired in late December as a process facilitator.

• Tom Battin was director of information technology for the Obama campaign in Maine and gave at least $4,900 to the Obama campaign and national Democratic Party between 2008 and 2011. He was hired in August 2010 as a field organizer.   

• Jed Rathband was among a group of self-described “Democratic activists” who started Donkeycard.com, a discounted home heating oil buying service whose proceeds in part went to fund “Dem Corps,” described on its website as “a group of concerned Democratic activists, progressive community leaders and local business owners …” He was brought on as a contractor in September and put on staff in November.

Also, Executive Director Seth Murray donated $320 to the Maine Democratic State Committee a few weeks before he began working at the Alliance in early June 2010. Murray donated $2,300 in 2008 to the Obama campaign and $500 in 2007 to Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree.

“We are a nonpartisan organization,” said Murray. “I can tell you straight up, I’m the one who made the hiring decisions, and I’m not at all influenced by that kind of factor. For me, it’s who’s going to be doing the best job.”

Murray declined to give staff member’s names; the Center identified the staff  through public records.

There are three more outreach staff members, but the Center has been unable to determine their identities. Murray said, “I do know that one of them has worked on political campaigns in addition to their community organizing experience.”

The Alliance, which got the no-bid contract in August 2010, announced Friday, Jan. 28, that it was shutting down the program and handing back unspent money to the Maine agency, Efficiency Maine Trust, that had partnered with it on the federal stimulus grant.

That announcement came just before the Maine Center planned to publish an expose of the program. The Center found the Alliance was headed by Baldacci’s former legal counsel, Tom Federle, and that a top Baldacci aide requested Efficiency Maine staff to include the Alliance in a larger grant proposal to the federal Department of Energy, despite misgivings by some agency officials.

The Center’s investigation also found that, nearly six months into its one-year contract, the Alliance had signed up 50 homes for weatherizing, far below its goal of 1,000.

Compensation for the Alliance jobs ranged from $15 an hour for process facilitators to annual salaries between $30,000 and $40,000 for community outreach staff. Murray earned $80,000.

Murray said they usually had between 15 and 20 applicants for each position and said he led interviews.

Martin did not return the Center’s phone or email messages. Staffers who responded were united in saying they were hired for their skills, not their politics.

“We were all hired not because of our politics, but in spite of it,” said Butterfield.

“I believe that I was fully vetted for this position,” said Innes.

“I’ve never done a single thing for the Democratic Party,” said Rathband. “The idea of lumping me in as some sort of Democratic cabal is far-fetched.”

“I have worked diligently for the past seven months to educate community members,” said Wright.

Did employees at any point look at their colleagues and wonder at the high percentage of Democratic Party activists?

“Work is work,” said Batten. “I don’t pay attention to the person’s political views.”

“I never really considered the connection,” said Berube, the former Mitchell campaign staffer and longtime Democratic Party operative. “It was not different than other jobs I’ve had in the past.”

That’s precisely the problem, said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C., group that tracks the influence of money in politics.  

“One has to wonder if this was a truly nonpartisan independent group that was working on behalf of lowering energy costs,” said Levinthal, “or if this was a political vehicle for the Democratic Party.

“If an organization such as this is stacked with people who are clearly very active in one party and members of a certain party, you might be scratching your head if you’re a Republican or Independent, as well.”

Efficiency Maine Executive Director Michael Stoddard said, “It’s really important that Mainers perceive Efficiency Maine programs as being totally nonpartisan because our mission is to lower everyone’s energy costs through impartially administered programs. So, it’s unfortunate if a particular contract ends up appearing heavily partisan, one way or another.”

Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, said he has requested Efficiency Maine staff appear before the committee to discuss the Alliance contract.

Naomi Schalit is executive director and senior reporter for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. The email is mainecenter@gmail.com and the website is pinetreewatchdog.org.