Legislators say leak of contract probe designed to ‘spin’ findings

Posted Aug. 10, 2011, at 8:27 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 11, 2011, at 11:03 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers on Wednesday strongly condemned the potentially illegal leak of parts of a confidential state investigation of a now-defunct energy group, the Maine Green Energy Alliance, and its state sponsor, the Efficiency Maine Trust.

They also said the leak was designed to cast both organizations in the best light possible before the formal release of the full investigation next Tuesday.

The legislators were referring to a story in Wednesday’s Portland Press Herald headlined “Probe finds no wrongdoing by Maine Green Energy Alliance.”

That premature conclusion drew the ire of Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chair of the Legislature’s bipartisan Government Oversight Committee.

“The committee, the members of the public and everybody should be receiving a report at the same time to draw their own conclusions,” Katz said. “For the subject of the report to be pre-empting news coverage by putting their own spin on it before the report is even released doesn’t help that orderly process.

“I can assure you that the committee will take that extremely seriously.”

State Rep. Stacey Fitts, the Republican co-chair of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, which oversees the Efficiency Maine Trust, was quoted in the Press Herald as saying, “They didn’t find a snake in the grass or issues that raised a red flag.”

The newspaper also reported that “officials who have seen a recent draft or were briefed on it say the accountability office found inadequate financial controls and documentation, but no wrongdoing.”

Efficiency Maine Trust’s board chairman, Adam Lee, was also quoted saying, “it’s fair to say that we could have kept a closer eye on” the alliance. “But the report says over and over there’s no evidence of fraud or malfeasance. It does seem to chalk a lot of the problems up to inexperience.”

Katz’s committee formally requested that the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability audit how the Maine Green Energy Alliance spent approximately $500,000 of a $1.1 million federal grant administered by the Efficiency Maine Trust to promote energy efficiency retrofits in Maine homes. The Alliance shut down in January after signing up only 50 of a projected 1,000 homes for retrofits.

The draft audit, labeled “confidential,” had been distributed for comment by OPEGA executive director Beth Ashcroft to Efficiency Maine Trust Executive Director Michael Stoddard, the Trust’s chief financial officer, and Alliance former Executive Director Seth Murray.

In an email to the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, Ashcroft said that she always stresses to the subjects of an audit that the draft report is to remain confidential.

“…We specifically cover the reporting process including the confidentiality of the draft reports that they will receive from us. They are told that they can share them within their organization and chain of command as needed but they need to put anyone they share it with on notice that they are confidential. Sometimes we specifically cite the provision in our statute that covers this and mention the penalty of a Class E crime,” wrote Ashcroft.

When she read the Press Herald story, which first appeared online Tuesday afternoon, Ashcroft said in an interview, “I was having a hard time believing what I was seeing. I was stunned.”

Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, a member of the Government Oversight Committee who wrote the confidentiality provision into law, said Wednesday he had formally asked, in writing, Maine’s attorney general, William Schneider, to investigate the breach.

“I think there needs to be an example made of the individuals who were party to this,” said Trahan. “They should have to pay the consequences if they violated the law.”

Democratic Sen. Bill Diamond of Windham, also a member of the Government Oversight Committee, said that he was concerned about the leak and would be asking detailed questions at the Aug. 16 meeting, when the OPEGA report is to be released and discussed.

“I’ll be asking to see where in fact the violations were, the breaches were, what was the reason for it and who was involved,” said Diamond.

Rep. David C. Burns, R-Whiting, co-chair of the Government Oversight Committee, said there were a number of options available to the committee.

“We could pursue it further to find out the origin, who was responsible for these leaks; certainly we could refer it to the Attorney General’s office because it appears to be a violation of state law; or we could choose to do nothing and just move on the results of the report,” Burns said.

Fitts did not return repeated phone calls.

Lee, the Efficiency Maine Trust board chairman, said that although he was legally allowed to see the draft report, he regretted talking about it publicly before the formal release.

“I regret if I did anything that offended OPEGA. I think they’re trying to do their job, and I don’t want to do anything to make their job harder,” said Lee. The legislators’ response, he said, “does seem somewhat overblown to me. Maine has got to have bigger problems than this.”

Stoddard said “no comment” to any questions about the report — except for one. When asked what the OPEGA report said on its cover, he responded, “Confidential. In very big type.”

Naomi Schalit is senior reporter at the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism organization based in Hallowell. The center may be reached at mainecenter@gmail.com. The website is pinetreewatchdog.org.

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