Legislative committee to consider probe of corporate influence on Department of Environmental Protection

Posted July 24, 2013, at 5:20 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee will convene Thursday to consider launching a probe into the Department of Environmental Protection, specifically allegations that Commissioner Patricia Aho is serving the interests of groups that used to be her clients when she served as a corporate lobbyist.

Beth Ashcroft, director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, otherwise known as OPEGA, said Wednesday that the probe was requested by Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, following a report into Aho’s connections published last month by the Maine Sunday Telegram. Johnson could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

“The committee will be considering what to do with that request,” said Ashcroft. “This is the first time they’ve seen it or taken it up. It’s related to various things that have been in the media recently, particularly the commissioner and actions she has taken or not taken. What they’re trying to do is find out whether it’s worth OPEGA’s resources and whether these matters are within our purview.”

Ashcroft said the Government Oversight Committee, which is made up of six Republican and six Democrat legislators, could recommend one of several options ranging from doing nothing to conducting preliminary research to sending the matter to another legislative committee.

In other business, the committee will receive a final report that is the result of a months-long OPEGA evaluation of various energy assistance programs administered by the Maine State Housing Authority. Among them are the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the Maine Weatherization Assistance Program.

Ashcroft said she can’t discuss the contents of the final report until it is delivered to the committee on Thursday. She said the probe was the result of a request to review Maine State Housing in general during the 125th Legislature, which was controlled by Republicans. She said preliminary research by her organization led OPEGA to recommend a closer look at the energy assistance programs.

The committee also will begin deliberations of how OPEGA might assist in a new initiative by the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage, which was included in the $6.3 billion biennial budget bill that took effect July 1, to keep a closer watch on tax expenditure programs such as Pine Tree Development zones, the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement program, tax increment financing agreements and others. The budget language established a task force and the Government Oversight Committee will determine OPEGA’s role moving forward. The Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review will also be involved.

“This is not a review, but a special process,” said Ashcroft. “The first step in us doing that was to try to get a handle on what kinds of categories or types of these programs are existing and then which ones might be worth reviewing more frequently.”

The Government Oversight Committee is set to convene at 9 a.m. Thursday in the State House.

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