Release of welfare report denied by LePage administration

Gov. Paul LePage speaks with reporters from his office in the State House on Thursday, Dec. 19. LePage's administration has continued to bar public access to a report on Maine's welfare system, saying officials still need time to &quotfinalize" the report so they are able to answer any questions the press might have.
Gov. Paul LePage speaks with reporters from his office in the State House on Thursday, Dec. 19. LePage's administration has continued to bar public access to a report on Maine's welfare system, saying officials still need time to "finalize" the report so they are able to answer any questions the press might have. Buy Photo
Posted Jan. 07, 2014, at 7:02 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 09, 2014, at 9:21 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — State officials are continuing to deny access to a publicly funded study examining Maine’s welfare system and the possible impacts of a Medicaid expansion here.

The study, commissioned on a no-bid contract for $925,200 by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, is being completed by the Alexander Group, a Rhode Island-based consulting company led by former Rhode Island and Pennsylvania welfare chief Gary Alexander.

The first part of the report, which had a target due date of Dec. 1 was submitted to the department on Dec. 16, but requests for access to it under the state’s public records laws have been denied or ignored by DHHS officials.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s office, which signed off on purchasing the report, has also said it isn’t releasing the documents yet.

Peter Steele, the communications director for LePage, said Tuesday the document was “complex” and the governor and his staff were continuing to review it. Steele said the documents would be made public “soon” but did not say precisely when.

The administration has previously said it needed to digest the document so it could adequately answer questions from the media on it.

But Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, which requires public access to public documents, does not allow the state to withhold the document. The law provides no exception to allow the document to be withheld and requires the state to provide a specific citation of law that allows it to withhold a document.

So far, the state has not given an acceptable citation as to why it is withholding the information.

Information in the report is likely to form some of the basis for the governor’s position on a proposal before the Legislature to expand the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare.

Suzanne Goucher, the president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and a member of the Legislature’s Right-to-Know Advisory Committee, said the LePage administration is flouting state law on the issue.

“This is a report that was paid for with a lot of public money and one that should have been released to the press as soon as it got into the hands of state government,” said Goucher, who is also the president of the Maine Broadcasters Association. “Clearly, this goes against a promise by Gov. LePage that he made when he first came into office that his would be the most transparent administration in state history.”

Goucher said the position reminded her of secret meetings lawmakers held in 1991, when they disallowed the press to attend, prior to a state government shutdown that took place when negotiations over workers compensation reform broke down.

“We were told we couldn’t come into the room because the issue was too complicated for us to understand,” Goucher said. “It sounds like the same excuse.”

On Dec. 20, John Martins, a spokesman for DHHS, reiterated LePage’s position in an email message to the Sun Journal.

“As the Governor indicated yesterday, the report will not be released until it has been reviewed, analyzed and finalized,” Martins wrote. “We certainly need to review the details in the report in order to answer questions about it. We expect the final report to be available during the week of January 6.”

The Sun Journal first asked for a copy of the document on Nov. 29. Others in the Maine media, including the Bangor Daily News, have also made repeated requests for access to the documents.

“The report is still being reviewed and finalized and I expect it to be released soon, but I do not have a firm date,” Martins wrote Tuesday in response to a request seeking an update on the status of the documents.

Democratic leaders in the Legislature have also been requesting access to the documents to no avail, according to Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland.

Alfond said the response by the LePage administration was typical despite its promise of transparency.

“It’s no surprise to me that this administration is not being transparent with legislators and Maine people around this contract,” Alfond said. “I’m not sure why none of the report has been released but it just further strengthens the argument that most Mainers now feel about the Alexander Group, that this group was brought in to deliver the governor’s message around the expansion of Medicaid and around our social programs that we have in this state and the delay tactics and the lack of reporting on time should come as no surprise.”

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