LePage stops payment to Alexander Group amid plagiarism scandal, says contract may be canceled

Posted May 23, 2014, at 4:03 p.m.
Last modified May 27, 2014, at 6:40 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Concerned about accusations of plagiarism by the controversial Alexander Group, Republican Gov. Paul LePage said Friday he would take immediate action against the company, if warranted, after getting a full report of the facts.

LePage said in an interview Friday that payments had already been suspended to the Alexander Group on Wednesday, after the Bangor Daily News reported sections of the group’s latest report had been lifted from a liberal Washington, D.C., think tank, verbatim, without proper attribution.

The Alexander Group was awarded a $925,000 sole-source contract last year to study the state’s welfare system and make recommendations toward its improvement. A scheduled monthly payment of $61,680 was ordered to be held by LePage as a result of the plagiarism allegations. More than $501,000 has been paid on the contract to date.

Gary Alexander, owner of the Alexander Group, did not respond to a request for comment Friday from the Bangor Daily News.

On Friday afternoon, Mike Tipping — spokesman for the liberal Maine People’s Alliance and columnist for the BDN and the Portland Press Herald — reported in a column published by the Portland newspaper that there were even more instances of plagiarism than originally reported.

Tipping cited original research conducted by a Mike Smit, a professor and plagiarism expert at Dalhousie University, who studied the report with anti-plagiarism software.

“I will take every action we can. I am not happy about this,” LePage told reporters Friday. “I’m saying I will withhold part to all of what’s left over, and maybe go back after what we paid. It’s all a matter of the extent of what the damage is.”

After the first round of plagiarism accusations, the consulting firm’s chief, Gary Alexander, said the error was one of scale: The report did cite the source of the material at one point, but failed to indicate that the following two pages all originated in someone else’s work.

But on Friday, Tipping said that in some cases, there was no attribution at all.

“This is true of portions of the reports copied wholesale from policy papers published by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Commonwealth Fund and the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, as well as text taken from a number of Maine government documents,” Tipping wrote.

LePage said Friday that he would speak with Smit, and promised “severe” penalties against the Alexander Group if the accusations are true, including the possibility of canceling the contract altogether. He also said he intends to have the state purchase plagiarism detection software, and run its own analysis of Alexander’s work.

LePage also stressed that he was upset that Alexander had communicated with a reporter from the Portland Press Herald about the latest plagiarism accusations without contacting the state to inform his administration that another round of concerns had been raised.

The plagiarism allegations may have surfaced just this week, but controversy over the Alexander Group goes back much further: Democrats and advocates for welfare recipients have said for months that Alexander’s outfit is highly partisan, and that the consultant was contracted to provide seemingly objective political fodder for the governor.

The group’s first report — a feasibility study on Medicaid expansion — was panned by Democrats and others inside and out of Maine, who said it contained errors that skewed its analysis by tens of millions of dollars, and took an unrealistic view of the impact Medicaid expansion would have.

Democrats in the Legislature even passed a bill that would have canceled the contract altogether. LePage vetoed the bill, and there weren’t enough votes in the House to override the veto.

On Friday, the governor said that while he had defended Alexander in the past, he’s now concerned about the quality of the report.

“I don’t mind being held accountable for things that I do,” he said. “That contract, I did approve it. I did veto the Democrats’ effort to kill the contract. At that point in time, I had no reason to believe that they weren’t going to do a high-quality job. I’m under the understanding now that they may [not] have.”

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Friday’s developments affirm what Democrats have been arguing for months, and that LePage deserves “no credit” for his new stance on the contract.

“He could have given the green light to Republican leaders to end this contract during the legislative session,” he said. “He could have met with Democratic leaders and said, ‘OK, how do we go on from here and get some value out of this report?’ He did none of this.”

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said the state deserves a full refund from the Alexander Group.

“It’s not enough to suspend payments for this flawed and controversial contractor,” said Eves in a written statement. “It’s fraudulent work. No amount of fraud should be tolerated. … I hope Republican lawmakers will now join us in calling for this contract to be canceled and the money refunded.”

Republican legislative leaders said Friday they were as concerned about the plagiarism accusations as anyone else, and praised the governor for taking swift action.

“I applaud the governor for stepping in and stopping payment on this thing,” said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta. “Plagiarism is wrong on a couple of levels. First, it’s just intellectually dishonest. Second, we should not have taxpayer dollars paying for someone to regurgitate something that someone else has already written. It sounds as if the governor is as surprised as anyone else by this.”

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said he believes that if plagiarism occurred, the contract should be canceled.

“I think the governor has made the right decision,” said Fredette. “To the extent we’re not getting what we paid for, that’s just wrong. Quite frankly, maybe we should be looking into getting our money back.”

BDN State House Bureau Chief Christopher Cousins contributed to this report. Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

 

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