OTHER VOICES

Somewhere between fraud and vindication

Posted May 30, 2012, at 4:18 p.m.

Now that the dust has settled from Friday’s release of the state’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability report on MaineHousing, let’s just all take a deep breath.

Whether you categorize the zeal to oust former Maine State Housing Authority Director Dale McCormick as a witch-hunt or simple public accountability, we must acknowledge that the OPEGA review of MaineHousing was appropriate. Review of any public spending at any state agency or quasi-agency is always appropriate.

Early this year, while taxpayers were still reeling from disclosures of fraud at the Maine Turnpike Authority, OPEGA was directed by legislators to look into the operations and spending practices of MaineHousing.

We supported that call for review, having ourselves questioned per-unit spending for some MaineHousing projects, including Birch Hill Apartments in Lewiston.

Some of those apartments, built at a cost of $225,000 per unit a couple of years ago, are falling apart. Some of the units were poorly designed, without adequate heat in bathrooms used by elderly residents.

At such cost, public housing projects should be sound and residents living there should be safe and warm.

While we don’t condone the backroom dealings of Treasurer Bruce Poliquin or the Maine Heritage Policy Center to do all possible to oust then-Director McCormick before knowing whether she was even doing anything wrong, we did and do support review of state agency — all agencies — spending.

As former Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, said: “No one should be afraid of an OPEGA review.”

McCormick was not afraid, and said so — before she resigned. And, since the review has been complete she has thanked her supporters for their, well, support.

According to the report, OPEGA found that “substantially all” of the $4.3 million MSHA expenses under review were “generally consistent with its mission and primary activities.”

That’s close to “all of the $4.3 million MSHA expenses are consistent with its mission and primary activities,” but it’s definitely not a finding that all is right. It is a finding that there are some questions, and certain spending concerns need to be addressed.

Let’s face it. MaineHousing was living pretty posh, with thousands of dollars in gift cards given to employees to compensate for lack of raises, and meals and massages at frequent training sessions. That’s not exactly the austerity that exists in other state agencies or in the financially strapped private sector.

Was there fraud at MaineHousing? No.

Was an examination of its spending practices worthwhile? Absolutely.

And it’s not over.

Friday’s release was an initial report, part one of an ongoing review.

On June 8, the Government Oversight Committee will host a public hearing on the OPEGA report as it considers a deeper investigation at MSHA.

There is, as many Republicans have already said, no comparison between the fraud perpetrated by Paul Violette at MTA and McCormick’s spending traits at MaineHousing.

However, there does appear to be a fair amount of money slushing around at MaineHousing for such things as donations to certain public interest groups and high-priced hotel rooms at conference venues.

It’s not fraud. But it’s not vindication either.

Sun Journal, Lewiston (May 30)

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