November 20, 2018
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Breaking federal law is not a normal way of managing federal money

BDN File | BDN
BDN File | BDN
Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew is pictured in a 2015 file photo.

If it wasn’t clear already, the LePage administration confirmed last week it has no interest in accountability or taking responsibility.

Last Tuesday, state auditor Pola Buckley released a finding that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services had misspent $13.4 million in federal welfare funds legally earmarked for low-income families with children. The department instead spent the money on in-home services for elderly and disabled residents.

Two LePage appointees responded swiftly by impugning the auditor’s motives — not by taking her finding seriously and taking responsibility for a serious failure in financial management.

First, the administration questioned the timing of the audit finding’s release; questioned how the auditor’s letter to Gov. Paul LePage, the Legislature and Attorney General Janet Mills so quickly found its way to the news media; and alleged the audit was politically motivated.

But the administration seems to overlook the fact that state government belongs to Maine people. The auditor’s finding is a public document that addresses serious shortcomings in how DHHS handles the public’s money. If the administration cared enough to follow the law — and less about impugning the motives of others and alleging a political conspiracy — its leaders would have seen that state law required the auditor to publicly release such a substantial and unusual discovery of the administration’s flouting of federal law.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew defended her department’s actions in talk radio appearances last week, claiming that the behavior uncovered by the auditor — DHHS’ transfer of $13.4 million from one federal account to another, its use of the money on purposes not allowed by federal law, then its reversal of the transfer after the department’s misuse of the money became public — was merely “what you do throughout the year in managing a federal block grant.”

In reality, DHHS’ actions are anything but normal behavior. A federal block grant is not a kitty the state can tap for whatever purpose it chooses, legal or not, as long as it returns the money once it becomes evident the state has violated federal law.

Indeed, the fact that DHHS leaders consider that normal behavior was of major concern to Maine’s state auditor, whose responsibility is to ensure that the state spends money it receives from the federal government in accordance with federal regulations and that the state has sufficient accounting controls in place to prevent misspending.

“This is anything but routine,” David Super, a Georgetown University law professor who specializes in anti-poverty programs, said.

One excuse Mayhew made on the radio last week is that “the federal government is rarely black and white in their interpretation of their own policies.”

The reality? “In this case, the law could not be plainer,” Super said. “There’s no good-faith basis to believe this to be legal. People do not do things and hope to get away with it.”

Even if Maine doesn’t face federal fines for its mismanagement of U.S. government funds, the state could still face future consequences.

“I know in some contexts, people think it’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission,” Super said. “That is not true with federal grant money. I think the fact that it happened at all is likely to raise alarm with federal overseers, and Maine is likely to be scrutinized much more carefully going forward.”

Perhaps most importantly, what Maine could lose is the federal government’s presumption that the state is acting in good faith, Super said.

“You rapidly get a notion of who they consider to be good states or bad states. It has to do with who plays by the rules and who doesn’t,” Super said. “They have limited resources, and they feel kindly toward states that will voluntarily play by the rules.”

Under the LePage administration, Maine has plainly shown that it’s one of the “bad states.” The administration has little interest in following the rules if those rules interfere with its political priorities.

When the reaction from high-level officials to an auditor’s finding of serious failures in financial management is to dismiss it and attack the source, it’s only logical that the state should face consequences for its actions.


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