Covering Irving and Martin: Trickier Than It Looks
Oil and wood don’t mix – or do they? Did the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting unfairly smear Democratic state Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake by reporting on March 22 that he owed as much as $250,000 to a company owned by Canada’s powerful Irving family, while Martin was also sponsoring a controversial bill for another Irving business?
Maybe. But probably not.
Was Martin accurate when he issued a statement that same day saying, “These two companies are completely separate entities with no relation other than a similar name”?
Maybe. But probably not.
The center’s article, written by Naomi Schalit and John Christie, contains denials by Martin and an Irving official of any affiliation between J.D. Irving Limited, the parent company of two businesses seeking changes in state mining regulations so they can extract minerals from Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, and Irving Oil, the company that claims it’s owed $250,000 by a convenience store that Martin co-owns. But the piece doesn’t delve further into the murky corporate structure of what the news media regularly refer to as the “Irving empire,” a privately held conglomerate of more than three hundred companies involved in forest products, oil refining, trucking, heavy equipment, construction, shipping, food products, television stations and newspapers. Estimates of its worth range from four billion dollars to nearly twice that.
Because Irving holdings are all private, there’s no way to find out how they’re structured. What’s known is that when family patriarch K.C. Irving died in 1992, he set up a trust that owned all his vast holdings. The trust was controlled mainly by his three sons – James, Arthur and Jack. Jack has since passed away. Over time, James took over management of the forestry business, while Arthur oversaw the oil operations, but the two entities worked in close coordination from their headquarters in Saint John, New Brunswick, and it was often impossible to tell who was calling the shots for any given Irving venture.
What’s certain is that in 1998, J.D. Irving, which already owned substantial forest land in Maine purchased an additional million acres that made it the largest property owner in Maine. Other Irving enterprises in the state include Cavendish Farms, Irving Equipment, and its ubiquitous gasoline stations.
In 2000, a Canadian Press account referred to the Irving operation as a “vertically integrated empire.” In 2008, Mainebiz wrote that the two largest companies in the “Irving family of businesses” were J.D. Irving and Irving Oil. But by 2010, there were press reports in Toronto’s Globe and Mail that indicated the two operations were becoming more autonomous. Other sources indicated the Irving family was engaged in a full-blown feud that has persisted to this day and has seen the forestry and oil divisions move to separate quarters. The energy companies even changed the name of the umbrella corporation to Fort Reliance, although some subsidiaries retained the Irving logo.
All of which seems to indicate that it’s unlikely Martin’s legal problems with Irving Oil would have much impact on his political dealings with J.D. Irving.
Christie said the center “would have been derelict if we hadn’t published the information” about Martin’s debt to Irving Oil. He said the original piece accurately reflected the separation of Irving’s interests.
He’s right in his first point, but has less firm ground to stand on in his second. A simple Google search would have revealed hints of the recent rift in the Irving family, and that information should have been included in the story.
On a third point that isn’t mentioned in the center’s story, there’s even more uncertainty.
According to informed sources in the Legislature, Martin wasn’t J.D. Irving’s first choice to sponsor its mining bill. In part, that was because the veteran legislator had frequently clashed with the company in the past over the labor rights of loggers. But it was also because Republicans control both chambers of the Maine Legislature, and Irving thought its measure would be better received with a GOP lawmaker introducing it. Various behind-the-scenes strategists later concluded the bill would stand a better chance with a sponsor who was a Democrat, since that would deflect some of the expected opposition from environmental groups. In the end, Martin, enticed by the prospect of three hundred new jobs in his economically depressed area of the state, agreed to become the lead sponsor, but the proposal also has a bipartisan group of cosponsors, mostly from Aroostook.
That information could be interpreted as indicating it’s unlikely there was any connection between Martin’s financial problems with Irving Oil and his backing of J.D. Irving’s bill. Or it could be stretched to reach the opposite conclusion.
There’s no question Martin’s appearance of conflict of interest merited reporting by the center. It would, however, have been helpful if the story had supplied more context.
And it wouldn’t have hurt the Irving’s reputation if the family had been a little more forthcoming about who owns what.
Socked by the Sox: There just aren’t enough Boston Red Sox fans to go around.
The March 31 Lewiston Sun Journal reported that WOXO (92.7 and 100.7 FM) in Norway and Mexico has lost the rights to broadcast Sox games for the first time since 1977. Instead, listeners in western Maine will have to listen to games on WJJB (96.3 FM) in Gray.
Both stations carried the Sox last season, but, according to WOXO owner Dick Gleason, WJJB pressured the team’s flagship station, WEEI in Boston, to give it exclusive rights in 2012.
Officials at Atlantic Coast Radio, which owns WJJB, didn’t return the paper’s calls seeking comment, but their reasoning isn’t difficult to figure out. Red Sox ratings are fickle numbers that drop sharply when the team doesn’t perform well. The lingering odor of last season’s September collapse hasn’t dissipated yet, and there’s an expectation the casual fan won’t be eager to tune into the play by play until the team proves it’s not going to stink up the place again.
With a soft start to the season expected, WJJB probably figured it couldn’t make money if it didn’t control rights to the Sox exclusively in its coverage area. For that to happen, WOXO had to go.
Although, it didn’t go far. This year, it will carry the games of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Boston team’s Double-A minor league affiliate. Ironically, it’s getting those rights from WPEI (95.9 FM), which is owned by Atlantic Coast.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.