AUGUSTA, Maine — A former political activist with a history of hardcore conservatism and connections to a controversial $925,000 contract for a Medicaid study that has missed the target date for its first analysis has been appointed deputy commissioner of finance for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Sam Adolphsen, the former director of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center’s Center for Open Government and the organization’s former director of government and external affairs, was appointed deputy commissioner of finance by DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew on Dec. 2. Adolphsen, who had been the department’s director of strategic development since Jan. 1 of this year at a salary of $61,235, received a pay boost to $76,648 a year in his new position. He replaces former Deputy Finance Director Kem Edwards, who according to DHHS spokesman John Martins held the job from May 31 of this year until Nov. 15 before resigning.

“Kem was a valued member of the DHHS team,” said Martins in an email to the Bangor Daily News. Edwards could not be reached for comment.

While Mayhew said Adolphsen is highly qualified for the post, a top Democratic legislator and a spokesman for the state employees’ union questioned whether his hiring is an example of political cronyism by Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration.

“Sam has been an integral member of the DHHS leadership team during the last year, assisting with budget development and implementation, contract development, contract management and strategy development for program budgets,” wrote Mayhew in a memo to her department when she appointed Adolphsen. “Sam’s broad understanding of DHHS programs and the Maine Legislature, as well as the experience he has gained while working on the department’s budget and strategy, will serve him well in this new position.”

Adolphsen earned a Husson University bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration in management in 2008. According to his online LinkedIn profile, Adolphsen’s first job out of college was as a campaign manager for the Maine Senate Republican Committee. After about four years in his next job with the Maine Heritage Policy Center, he joined DHHS as the director of strategic development on Jan. 1 of this year.

In that role, Adolphsen oversaw, among other things, the awarding of a nearly $1 million no-bid contract for a Medicaid study to the Rhode Island-based Alexander Group, which has come under fire in the past two weeks for failing to meet its first reporting deadline on Dec. 1, despite already having been paid more than $100,000. Gary Alexander, who heads the group, has drawn criticism from Democrats for basing welfare reform initiatives in conservative ideology rather than research and for prior governmental controversies in Pennsylvania, where he headed the Department of Public Welfare until February of this year.

Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said she was unaware of Adolphsen’s qualifications for his new job but is very familiar with his past work at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, where he frequently advocated for reductions in spending on social services.

“I don’t worry as much about him being hired as I do about the political cronyism aspect of it,” said Craven. “I’m hoping that he won’t be able to do as much damage as the finance director as he did out in the community with his policy suggestions.”

Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, said Adolphsen is not a union member because he holds a management position. Though Quint said he was not familiar with Adolphsen’s qualifications, he said it’s troubling to see someone with a history of advocating for cuts in services in such a high position in state government’s largest department.

“I think it is very telling that yet again, the hiring of an outside political person from a political patronage job has happened in the LePage administration,” said Quint. “He comes from an organization [the MHPC] where one of its main focuses is to basically tear down government and bring it to bare bones.”

House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, called those accusations “tiring” and “disingenuous.”

“The Department of Health and Human Services has thousands of state employees,” said Fredette. “Sam, being one of those, obviously brings a certain skill set that the commissioner or governor feels is appropriate. This is simply the Democrats wanting to take partisan shots at the department and the LePage administration day in and day out.”

Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, the ranking Republican on the Health and Human Services Committee, dismissed arguments that Mayhew engaged in any cronyism.

“Mary Mayhew is a Democrat,” said Sanderson. “She would not even have considered Sam for this position if he wasn’t qualified. I think Sam is uniquely qualified because of the work he’s already done for the department. I think my Democratic colleagues, regardless of who was hired as a deputy commissioner, would say these same things.”

Adolphsen isn’t the first MHPC staffer to land in state government under LePage. One was Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who resigned earlier this year for another job. And earlier this month, former MHPC policy analyst Amanda Clark was hired as assistant to the chief of staff and deputy press secretary in Gov. Paul LePage’s office.

Adolphsen also isn’t the first Adolphsen in the Department of Health and Human Services. Nicholas Adolphsen is Commissioner Mayhew’s director of legislative affairs. According to Martins, the two Adolphsens are cousins.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.