Lawmakers Friday directed the Legislature’s investigative arm to undertake a “rapid response” investigation of the Maine State Housing Authority’s expenses, giving that work new priority in what many described as an increasingly intense political environment.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, co-chairs of the Government Oversight Committee, asked the committee to have the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability take up a housing authority investigation earlier than had been planned.
The committee voted unanimously to have OPEGA look into money the authority has spent in the last five years on sponsorships, contributions, memberships and related expenses. Sens. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, and Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, were absent.
The investigation comes as the housing authority is under intense scrutiny and criticism by its board, by State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, who sits on the board, and by the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative policy group.
Questions have been raised about issues including how much is spent on affordable housing units and what groups the authority has given money to. The agency has been the subject of intense media coverage, including from a new online offering called The Maine Wire, which is run by the Maine Heritage Policy Center.
The agency is also under fire for substandard low-income housing and lack of inspections in the Norway area, but that is not part of the OPEGA review.
“I think trial by press is not a good thing for anybody — certainly we can’t get to the facts,” Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said at the committee hearing Friday morning.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers who spoke noted the full-contact politics that were being played around the housing authority issues.
Rep. Leslie Fossell, R-Alna, expressed concern that an investigation would be getting into “the middle of a cat fight that can’t be won.”
Part of the criticism of the authority comes down to the fact that, by statute, the executive director can’t be fired by the board of directors. Only the governor can fire the executive director, and only for specific causes of “inefficiency, neglect of duty or misconduct in office.” The current director, Dale McCormick, a holdover appointment by former Gov. John Baldacci, has a term that expires in February 2014.
Sen. Jon Courtney, R-Springvale, has submitted a bill that would allow the board to fire the director.
Rep. Donald Pilon, D-Saco, said he was concerned about the influence the Maine Heritage Policy Center had over expediting the investigation.
“I want this committee to do the review and I don’t want the Maine Heritage Policy Center to intervene or get in the way of any investigation or any review here,” said Pilon. “That truly is my concern.”
Katz assured Pilon that neither he nor Burns had had any contact with that group regarding the housing authority investigation.
OPEGA Director Beth Ashcroft said taking on a “rapid response” investigation would delay current work her department is doing on how much the state spends per prisoner in custody.
Ashcroft warned that the housing authority was still working to respond to a freedom of information request by the Maine Heritage Policy Center. When that request is completed, it may result in more news coverage, she said. Ashcroft said she would not expect to feel pressure — and would not respond to pressure — to change how she investigates the housing authority if more information hits the press.
“The timing may turn the heat up — I want you to know I am not going to do anything differently than what I would normally do,” said Ashcroft.
Ashcroft said her staff would analyze MaineHousing’s payments and vendor lists and pursue any leads that raise questions. She didn’t offer an estimate as to when the investigation would be done, noting that would depend on what was uncovered.
Peter Merrill, director of communications and planning at the authority, said many of the contributions cited in the media as problematic were done to host tables at conferences and other such actions to promote the agency’s programs. That falls under the federal regulations governing the agency, he said.
“I think that’s a reasonable thing for us to have done,” he said, adding that he expected similar conclusions from the OPEGA investigation.
Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said he believed the review was very important, and moving it up made sense.
“We are all sensitive to the political battles that are going on constantly around here,” said Diamond. “It goes without saying this committee is going to approach this in a non-partisan manner, but I think we have to be even more sensitive to all the networking going on out there.”
Katz responded: “Even though each one of us is a Republican or a Democrat, those hats are off when we enter the room.”
The committee still intends to pursue a more in-depth investigation into MaineHousing later this spring, Katz said.