October 16, 2018
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Legislature wants more oversight of agencies

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers on Tuesday asked the director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to draft legislation that would help guide state and quasi-state agencies on how to distribute public funds.

That direction came as the Government Oversight Committee continued its probe into the now-defunct Maine Green Energy Alliance, which folded in January amid concerns about its effectiveness and allegations of political favoritism.

“I realize we’ve gone a long time on this, but I think it’s necessary because if it happened here, it probably happened before and it’s probably going to happen again unless we put some more strictures in the policy,” said Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, House chairman of the committee. “I’m amazed we don’t already have a policy for the spending of state and federal monies.”

Lawmakers asked OPEGA in late April to look into the rise and fall of the Maine Green Energy Alliance. The nonprofit formed in 2009 to administer $3 million in federal grant funds for home energy audits and weatherization improvements but never reached the number of customers it had hoped.

Two weeks ago, OPEGA concluded that the alliance failed, in part, for: lacking a specific plan to carry out its mission, setting ambitious goals that it failed to meet and operating with informal business practices that led to questionable costs.

That was enough for lawmakers to ask OPEGA Director Beth Ashcroft to draft legislation for consideration during the next session, which convenes in January. That bill, Ashcroft said, likely will include suggestions outlined in the report, including ensuring that state or quasi-state agencies require that 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 surrendered the balance of a $1.1 million contract with Efficiency Maine Trust earlier this year.

Of the half-million dollars spent by the alliance during its brief period of operation, OPEGA said about half of that total was not spent wisely because of informal business practices and poor planning. The report uncovered no misuse of funds.

On Tuesday, the principal of the Maine Green Energy Alliance, who has taken the brunt of the criticism for the group’s failure, admitted to operational mistakes and image problems but said he doesn’t regret getting involved.

Thomas Federle, former counselor to Gov. John Baldacci, testified before the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee about his involvement with the alliance.

“What I would do again is take a risk and throw myself into the public arena where I can get kicked a lot … if I can have the opportunity to do something meaningful,” Federle said.

Federle’s comments on Tuesday parroted what already was outlined in the OPEGA report, but he also addressed additional questions. Specifically, legislators on the Government Oversight Committee focused on the perception that the Maine Green Energy Alliance was little more than a nonprofit formed to benefit Democrats.

Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, said the group’s connection to one political party was hard to overlook. Sen. Bill Diamond, a Democrat from Windham, said the appearance of political favoritism was unflattering.

Among the staff members hired by the Maine Green Energy Alliance during its brief tenure were Jim Martin and Steve Butterfield, both of whom were House members representing Bangor, and Shelby Wright, a 2010 candidate for House District 39 in Hampden. All three are Democrats.

Federle said he understands the appearance problem but maintained that he was blind to it. He said there was no evidence in the OPEGA report that the alliance engaged in political activity and added that he had not met either Martin or Butterfield before they were hired and was unaware of their political affiliation.

Wright, he said, was simply a candidate when she was hired and, although her job with the alliance was community organizing, she did not use her job to advance her political aspirations. Either way, Federle said, Wright lost to Andre Cushing, who is now the assistant House majority leader.

Burns said he was not satisfied with Federle’s explanation and hopes OPEGA’s legislation might address some of the concerns raised.

“If one entity has control over how these monies are spent and there is an opportunity for political chicanery, I think that might have taken place here and we need to ensure that doesn’t happen again,” he said.

In the later part of Tuesday’s Government Oversight Committee meeting, lawmakers took aim at Efficiency Maine Trust, the fiscal agent for the Maine Green Energy Alliance. Now that the alliance has folded, some of the future scrutiny might fall on Efficiency Maine.

Executive Director Michael Stoddard said his agency already has begun implementing suggestions contained in the OPEGA report. For example, the trust administers grants on behalf of several groups and needs to exercise better oversight of the use of those funds. But he admitted Tuesday that the failure of the Maine Green Energy Alliance could jeopardize future grant opportunities.

Lawmakers will hear more from Stoddard about Efficiency Maine Trust’s involvement at the next Government Oversight Committee meeting in October.

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