AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s finance commissioner took sole responsibility Tuesday for the controversial sale of land in Thomaston to a state employee and vowed to create policies to ensure there is more accountability and transparency in similar future sales.
Sawin Millett and other state officials fielded tough questions during a Tuesday hearing from members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee on the sale of three parcels of land to Maine State Prison Warden Patricia Barnhart and another buyer.
Lawmakers wanted answers as to why the state felt it was OK to sell three parcels of land to a state employee for well below the value of the property assessed by the town. Maine Attorney General William Schneider concluded last week that the sale violated state law and should be voided, but the two sides have yet to resolve the transaction.
Millett said because the Thomaston land sale began during a previous administration, it made sense to look forward rather than backward and not to assign blame.
Lawmakers, however, said that while they appreciated Millett’s willingness to accept responsibility, they were not satisfied with the lack of accountability.
“I’m disturbed to not know what the next step is,” said Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro. “They violated the law … For the average citizen, there are consequences.”
The Government Oversight Committee is expected to revisit the Thomaston land sale issue on Aug. 16 when more of the players in the sale will testify.
The transaction in question involved three separate pieces of land at 22, 26 and 30 Ship Circle. When Barnhart was hired in 2009 to head the Maine State Prison, she was offered the chance to live in a home at one of those properties. Traditionally, that home has been provided to wardens as part of their compensation package but Barnhart knew the property was up for sale and that she probably would not live there permanently.
Instead, Barnhart negotiated with a real estate firm representing the state and bought the property for about $175,000 — well below the $458,000 assessed by the town — with plans to turn it into a seven-lot subdivision. That subdivision proposal is what brought the controversial sale to light.
Millett admitted Tuesday that details of the Thomaston sale were missed by his office and he said he plans to more closely monitor all state land sales.
Along with the attorney general’s decision last week, Gov. Paul LePage signed an executive order that seeks to set up internal policy guidelines for future sale of state-owned real estate.
“While it is disconcerting that questions about this sale were not raised during this process, I am confident the measures I am now taking will prevent similar situations from occurring in the future,” LePage said upon issuing the order. “The people’s business is to be done openly and Mainers must be able to trust the process in which state business is conducted.”
Barnhart has not commented publicly on the sale and Department of Correction officials have said the deal does not affect her employment. At least not yet.
Some legislators further criticized Barnhart, alleging that she convinced Maine State Prison inmates to do landscaping on the property at no cost.
“It’s very peculiar that she would even try to do that,” Trahan said.
State Bureau of General Services Acting Director Betty Lamoreau previously defended the sale and said her agency was under pressure from the Legislature to sell any property that might help balance the state budget. Millett agreed that he may have pushed too hard to generate revenue quickly.
Legislators said the more disturbing thing is that it has taken until now to start talking about policies.
“Does the state have any idea what it owns?” asked Rep. Les Fossel, R-Alna. “Maybe we should look at what we own and do this in a planned manner?”
Millett said the state does have an inventory of land it owns and he disagreed with claims that the system in broken.
In a light moment Tuesday, Millett said the state property in Thomaston has generated a lot of interest in the last few weeks, which prompted one committee member to quip that the controversy is a “great marketing plan.”