There was no fraud at the Maine State Housing Authority, but it was too late for the former director. Dale McCormick had already been forced out.
Operations at the quasi-state agency certainly could be improved. But what are the repercussions for the people involved with the authority who coordinated a sustained effort to find fault with McCormick’s management in order to undermine her?
The deliberate planning by State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, other government officials and the Maine Housing board chairman to find problems for the purpose of generating negative publicity is regrettable politics.
The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability has completed its study of the agency from 2007 to 2011. The review shows that “substantially all” of the expenses sampled at the authority were “generally consistent with its mission and primary activities,” and “we found no indications of fraud.”
The review did question the following: whether the agency’s donations to organizations was necessary; the benefit of the frequency with which staff attended conferences; and the necessity of providing food to employees at gatherings, giving Hannaford gift cards as bonuses and purchasing business meals for staff not traveling.
It also questioned the necessity of art purchased with the renovation of Maine Housing’s office building and the need for the former director to incur lodging expenses of between $300 and $400 per night when she traveled to large cities.
All of these problems can easily be prevented from happening again, and a law signed by Gov. Paul LePage in April will require the agency to establish written policies to address travel, meal and contribution expenses; another law will also give more oversight power to the agency’s board. But the results of the review certainly do not provide overwhelming reasons for someone to lose her job.
The review itself — ordered by the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee in October — was warranted. All agencies, whether they are state or quasi-state, could benefit from an independent source telling them how they can improve.
Even McCormick wasn’t afraid of a review. “Bring it on,” she said.
Granted, Poliquin and others had objections that weren’t raised in the OPEGA review. For instance, Poliquin decried the per-unit development costs of public housing projects, such as those in Portland and Waterville. Could there be greater efficiencies found? Sure. But the costs were not as outrageous as they were purported to be, and they certainly weren’t a reason for McCormick to be pushed out the way she was.
The liberal group Maine’s Majority obtained emails through a request under the Freedom of Information Act that show the back dealings of Poliquin, authority chairman Peter Anastos, staff at the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center and others.
Instead of waiting for the OPEGA review to be completed, they searched for potential agency defects and sought to publicize them for the purpose of booting out McCormick. (She was the last appointee of Gov. John Baldacci who served as the head of a state agency).
In January, Poliquin, a Republican, replied in an email to Maine Heritage Policy Center Chief Executive Officer Lance Dutson about a leaked report concerning failed housing inspections.
“Can yu give us exec summary or even bullet points after reading. Most important is pinning msha down on knowing about mess for 2 years and not fixing. And other ways to demonstrate incompetence. Thx,” Poliquin wrote.
In an email to Anastos in December, Poliquin discussed a draft opinion piece about the “preponderance of taxpayer dollars flowing through MSHA” and suggested having Dutson read it before submitting it to newspapers.
“Suggest you change it any way that works for you. Then run it by Lance (Dutson). Then shop it to the PPH, BDN, and Sun Journal. More I think about it, the more I think should make the calls to the papers. You’re a new face with growing power central to a very big issue … That then leaves me with another bite at the Op-Ed apple later,” he wrote.
There’s no doubt the Maine State Housing Authority can improve its operations. But now that more efficiencies have been found, let’s not forget about the slippery process it took to get there. We’re not talking about a mistake in a speech; it was a coordinated attack.
Dealings like this discourage more people from taking part in the democratic process, gives a bad image to the Republican party and makes the work of the LePage administration that much more difficult.