State finds bad practices but no misuse of funds at energy alliance

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff
Posted Aug. 22, 2011, at 11:13 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — An independent state agency has concluded that informal practices and weak oversight created a high risk for impropriety at the now-defunct Maine Green Energy Alliance but found no evidence of inappropriate use of funds.

Beth Ashcroft, director of Maine’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, presented a report to legislators on Monday that examined Maine Green Energy Alliance.

The report highlighted several deficiencies of the nonprofit group that was tasked with administering $3 million in federal grants funds for home energy audits and weatherization improvements.

Among them were: lacking a specific plan to carry out its mission, setting overly ambitious goals that it failed to meet and operating with informal business practices — including hiring — that led to questionable costs.

OPEGA also suggested that the alliance’s engagement of attorney Thomas Federle, a former counselor to Gov. John Baldacci who acted as a principal in getting the group up and running, represented an apparent conflict of interest.

However, despite operating under less-than-stellar practices, the Maine Green Energy Alliance and its staff were engaged in a sincere effort to make a difference in residential energy efficiency, according to OPEGA.

“It appears more likely that the questionable decisions and actions resulted from MGEA pursuing its performance goals before having its administrative house in order, rather than from any unethical or illegal intentions,” the report stated.

Members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, who asked for the investigation, were divided Monday in their response to OPEGA’s report.

Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, said it seemed to her that the alliance had admirable goals but were forced to carry out those goals more quickly than practicable to ensure receipt of federal funds.

Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, said he would have liked to see more questions answered about whether staff members of the Maine Green Energy Alliance engaged in politicking and whether staffers were chosen based on political affiliation.

A large number of the alliance’s staff and beneficiaries were Democratic supporters, something that has been highlighted by Republicans as the alliance failed.

When asked by Trahan, Ashcroft said there was no evidence to suggest that there was any improper political activity on the part of the alliance or its staff.

Sullivan said it was unfortunate that some were playing the politics card in connection to the alliance’s demise but also said that has come to define the Legislature’s work.

“I don’t think anyone trusts anyone anymore,” she said after Monday’s meeting. “Everybody wants to blame someone else.”

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who chairs the Government Oversight Committee, said that as usual, OPEGA did a superb job in analyzing the issues of concern.

“I can’t find any wrongdoing … or any smoking gun,” Katz said at the close of Monday’s meeting. The Government Oversight Committee will meet again on Sept. 6 to wrap up talks on the OPEGA report.

Among the items the committee will consider will be how the OPEGA report was leaked to members of the media last week. Katz said in order for OPEGA to be successful, it needs to be as nonpolitical as possible and said confidentiality plays a big role in the agency’s work.

Government Oversight Committee members said they would consider whether to ask the Attorney General’s Office to investigate the information leak.

Katz, who said leaking confidential information is a Class E crime in some cases, supported asking the state’s top prosecuting office to weigh in.

Trahan, who already has spoken with Attorney General William Schneider about the leak, said this is the second time information has been leaked to the public about an OPEGA investigation.

In addition to outlining deficiencies of the Maine Green Energy Alliance, OPEGA’s report offered several suggestions for how the Legislature might improve the process going forward, including ensuring that state or quasi-state agencies require recipients of grant funds “have adequate capacity and proper controls.”

In Maine Green Energy Alliance’s case, the group received 10 percent of a $30 million grant under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act awarded to Efficiency Maine Trust.

Although the alliance was set to receive $3 million in funds over three years, it spent only about $500,000 and surrounded the balance of a $1.1. million contract with Efficiency Maine Trust earlier this year.

The alliance signed up only about 50 homes for weatherization in five months after setting a goal of 1,000 homes in the first year. It folded in January as the allegations of political favoritism first started to swirl.

Of the half-million dollars spent by the alliance during its brief period of operation, OPEGA said about half of that total could be considered questionable spending and some expenses could have been avoided with better planning. Ashcroft, however, said the potential for misuse was far greater than any actual abuse.

Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine Trust, said he was satisfied with OPEGA’s report and was glad to see Efficiency Maine get credit for ending the alliance’s contract early.

“However, OPEGA did find areas where EMT could improve its oversight of subgrantees, and we take those findings very seriously,” Stoddard said. “We have already incorporated a number of policies and procedures suggested by OPEGA to help mitigate financial and compliance risks in future grants and to make our internal controls even stronger.”

The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability has been busy this summer.

Recently, its staff concluded an investigation of the Maine Turnpike Authority, which ultimately led to the resignation of authority head Paul Violette and a criminal investigation of Violette by the state Attorney General’s Office.

Additionally, OPEGA has probed the sale of state-owned land last year to Maine State Prison Warden Patricia Barnhardt, a transaction that has since been voided by the AG’s office.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/08/22/politics/oversight-group-finds-bad-practices-but-no-misuse-of-funds-at-energy-alliance/ printed on April 18, 2014