State hopes to avoid future problems raised by prison land sale deal

Posted Oct. 18, 2011, at 5:37 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 19, 2011, at 9:30 a.m.
Patricia Barnhart
Patricia Barnhart

AUGUSTA, Maine — Hoping to avoid another questionable sale of state-owned land, lawmakers on Tuesday asked the state’s Department of Administrative and Financial Services to draft legislation that would make the process for marketing and selling state land uniform across state agencies.

The discussion of how the state sells land grew out of a controversial transaction between the state and the warden of the Maine State Prison.

That sale of three properties in Thomaston to Patricia Barnhart and her partner has since been voided by the State Attorney General’s Office and Barnhart last month was forced to sell the land and buildings back to the state.

The problems identified through a probe of that sale by the state’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability were several-fold. First, Barnhart was a state employee buying state land. Second, the land was sold for $175,000, or about one-third of the assessed value. Third, the property was never sufficiently marketed to the public before Barnhart bought it.

The land sale only became public after Barnhart went to the local planning board to ask permission to subdivide the property, but lawmakers now are using it as an example of what not to do.

“I think this has been on radar for awhile, both the sale and the disposal of state-owned property, but the Thomaston sale certainly brought it to the forefront,” said Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting. “For me, here we are in 2011, talking about things we should have addressed decades ago.”

As part of OPEGA’s ongoing review of state land sales, Director Beth Ashcroft researched 49 sales over the last five years. Of those, she said, 36 properties were not marketed publicly, although Ashcroft said in nearly all cases there was a good reason to justify not reaching out to the public. For example, the state would have to spend money to get a property ready to sell.

However, a handful, including the Ship Circle property in Thomaston that was sold to Barnhart, should have been formally marketed, Ashcroft said.

Barnhart, appearing before the Government Oversight Committee in August, conceded that a potential conflict of interest was present, but she maintained that she didn’t do anything illegal or unethical.

Lawmakers grilled Barnhart at that meeting and ultimately agreed that the fault was not hers and blamed the process.

Shortly after that sale went public, state Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett took responsibility and said his staff perhaps tried too hard to sell state land to help plug holes in the budget.

On Tuesday, Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, summed up the committee’s wishes by saying she would like to see uniform policy written into law so all governmental agencies are playing by the same rules.

That task now falls to David Emery, deputy commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, and his staff to come up with a proposal or draft legislation that addresses those wishes.

DAFS already had been directed to come up with a land sale policy specifically for its department. That was mandated by an executive order signed by Gov. Paul LePage this summer.

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