Sparks flew, tempers flared and the gavel banged Friday as Democratic and Republican lawmakers debated whether to have the Legislature’s watchdog agency conduct a formal inquiry into the now-defunct Maine Green Energy Alliance.
Despite the rancor between the top Republican and Democrat on the Joint Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, committee members — who have spent the last two months conducting their own informal inquiry into the Alliance — ultimately voted unanimously to ask the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to investigate the Alliance.
The organization abruptly folded in January and forfeited the unused portion of a $1 million stimulus grant to market home energy retrofits in Maine after failing to meet grant goals.
After the vote, committee co-Chairman Rep. Stacey Fitts, a Pittsfield Republican, said he wanted OPEGA to launch an inquiry because the committee’s job is to make policy, not conduct investigations and draw conclusions.
“The background information will go to OPEGA that we’ve seen to this point,” said Fitts. “Let OPEGA make that choice as to whether they feel there was anything inappropriate. They have the ability to both subpoena and refer, and probably in a more aggressive way than the committee does.”
The Maine Green Energy Alliance, whose founder, attorney Tom Federle, was a former counsel to Gov. John Baldacci, has been dogged by reports documenting the role that political influence from then-Gov. Baldacci’s office played in awarding the grant and the unusual number of Democratic activists, candidates and lawmakers on the Alliance staff.
The Alliance closed down after signing up only 50 households for energy retrofits, six months into the one-year contract to sign up 1,000 households. The remaining grant money was returned to the Efficiency Maine Trust, which administered the grant.
Republican committee co-Chairman Sen. Michael Thibodeau of Winterport opened Friday’s meeting saying that after reviewing the reams of material the committee had gotten from the Alliance, as well as testimony it had heard from Federle and Executive Director Seth Murray, he was concerned about “the appearance that the federal grant funds may have been used to further partisan efforts.”
“I’m concerned that state resources may have been used for the same reasons,” Thibodeau added.
Rep. John Hinck, a Portland legislator who is the ranking Democrat on the committee, repeatedly defended the Alliance, his voice often cracking with emotion.
“I am stunned that we’re sitting here,” said Hinck. “In four years plus a few months of this session in the Legislature, I’ve never seen an inquisition like this.”
Hinck and Thibodeau had several angry exchanges, with Hinck accusing Thibodeau and Fitts of making “haphazard allegations” that would, if investigated, make the committee a “laughingstock.” At two separate moments, a red-faced Thibodeau gaveled the session to adjournment in order to force Hinck to stop talking.
“Maybe you better do a press release,” Thibodeau told Hinck, “rather than going through this point by point.”
But Hinck was the only Democrat offering such a spirited defense. Freshman Rep. Mark Dion of Portland, a former Cumberland County sheriff, said he wanted some answers.
“Did legislators engage in any conduct that violates our code of ethics?” Dion asked. “Were federal monies assigned to the state, to Efficiency Maine and to the Maine Green Energy Alliance, were those discharged as the grant intended or were there violations or misappropriations of those funds?
“I would say for the record, there are some questions that deserve to be answered.”
And the motion to ask OPEGA to conduct the investigation was made by Gorham Democrat and former Senate majority leader Sen. Phil Bartlett.
“It’s been an interesting morning,” said Bartlett. “Let’s move this thing along.
“The key issue here,” said Bartlett, “is trying to understand whether the federal funds were used appropriately.”
A formal investigation of the Alliance by OPEGA will require a vote by the Legislature’s bipartisan Government Oversight Committee to move ahead.
That committee meets next Thursday and its chairman, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said Friday that “the fact that this is a unanimous committee request will carry great weight with the Government Oversight Committee.”
OPEGA staff recently concluded an investigation of the Maine Turnpike Authority whose findings led to the resignation of authority head Paul Violette and hearings by the Government Oversight Committee, which in turn asked the state Attorney General’s Office to conduct a review.
On its website, OPEGA says, “it conducts objective and independent performance audits of State government programs and activities to ensure they are achieving intended results and are effective, efficient and economical. Within this context, OPEGA also evaluates compliance with laws, regulations, policies and procedures.”
While the Maine Green Energy Alliance is not a state agency, OPEGA can investigate it because it is “also authorized to audit non-State entities receiving State funds or established to perform government functions.”
Naomi Schalit is executive director and senior reporter for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism organization based in Hallowell. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web: pinetreewatchdog.org.