Political battle over MaineHousing heats up

Posted Jan. 20, 2012, at 2:53 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — As Republicans and their advocates ratchet up the pressure on MaineHousing Director Dale McCormick, two Democrats have withdrawn their support for a bill that would allow the quasi-governmental agency’s board of directors to fire her.

Reps. Jay Gilbert, D-Jay, and John Tuttle, D-Sanford, on Thursday removed their co-sponsorship of a bill that would align the accountability of MaineHousing executive director with that of similarly structured agencies.

The proposal is sponsored by Sen. Jon Courtney, R-Springvale, who has issued a statement saying that he was disappointed that Gilbert and Tuttle didn’t “have the courtesy” to explain their decision.

Neither Gilbert nor Tuttle could be reached Friday afternoon.

The bill, LD 1778, would not grandfather McCormick, who was appointed by Gov. John Baldacci before he left office. McCormick, a Democrat, has been the subject of criticism by state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and Gov. Paul LePage’s newly appointed MaineHousing board members.

While the governor’s appointees now control the agenda of the board, they do not have the authority to remove her — a point frequently noted by Poliquin, McCormick’s most vociferous critic.

Democrats have described the scrutiny of McCormick and MaineHousing as a political witch hunt.

Nonetheless, it has been a tumultuous week for McCormick and her agency. Both have been under scrutiny by the conservative advocacy group the Maine Heritage Policy Center. MHPC this week released a report highlighting “disturbing” spending practices at MaineHousing, based on information the group obtained from the agency.

The agency has said the spending, which included conferences at high-end hotels and resorts, was designed for staff training. However, the report has mobilized some Republican lawmakers, who this week called on the Attorney General’s Office to investigate.

Democrats, meanwhile, have hit back against Poliquin. This week Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, requested an opinion from Attorney General William Schneider about whether Poliquin’s involvement with the Popham Beach Club violates a provision in the Maine Constitution designed to limit the state treasurer’s business dealings while he or she is responsible for the state’s treasury.

Poliquin owns Dirigo Holdings LLC and Popham Beach Club. Poliquin recently made headlines over his request to expand the activities at the club. The Phippsburg Board of Selectmen recently approved the request. Dirigo Holdings also owns Popham Woods, a housing development in Phippsburg.

Dion says Poliquin’s business dealings may fall outside the bounds of Article V, Pt. 3, which states that “the treasurer shall not, during the treasurer’s continuance in office, engage in any business of trade or commerce, or as a broker, nor as an agent or factor for any merchant or trader.”

The constitutional provision allows Poliquin to receive income from stocks and real estate investments. However, Dion believes Poliquin’s involvement with the Popham Beach Club and Dirigo Holdings warrants an official opinion from Schneider.

Poliquin has declined to comment on the matter. However, he has not relented his attacks on MaineHousing and McCormick. During LePage’s Capitol for a Day event in Lewiston this week, Poliquin told the audience that he was attempting to “expose” the agency’s wasteful spending at taxpayers’ expense.

In addition to the constitutional matter, Poliquin is also the subject of a complaint by the Maine Democratic Party. The party this week filed a complain with the Maine Ethics Commission alleging that Poliquin failed to disclose his earnings from Dirigo Holdings as required by law.

No date has been set for consideration of the complaint. The commission staff will seek a written response from Poliquin, and commissioners will need time to consider the complaint, the response and the applicable law. The commission’s next meeting is Wednesday, Jan. 25.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said Poliquin has asked that the matter be considered by the commission soon.

To see more from the Sun Journal, visit sunjournal.com.

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