In June 2016, the BDN’s Maine Focus team published a story that, based on financial documents, showed the Maine Department of Health and Human Services had unlawfully spent millions in federal welfare funds in 2015 and 2016.
DHHS spent $13.4 million over the course of those two years on services for elderly and disabled Mainers, including in-home care and Meals on Wheels. Federal law, however, requires that states use the money on programs or services for low-income families with children.
The response from then-Commissioner Mary Mayhew was to outright deny the evidence.
“The BDN has their facts wrong,” she told reporters in 2016, without offering any proof. “What we’ve done is to maximize our available resources through the [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] block grant.”
So began a trend where the only entity holding the commissioner accountable was a newspaper — not the governor, Maine Legislature or federal government. Because, it turned out, Mayhew was not telling the truth.
While publicly stating it had done nothing wrong, DHHS reversed its spending of TANF money to follow the law.
When the department came under scrutiny soon again — this time by State Auditor Pola Buckley, who issued a rare report highlighting “improper management of funds at the agency level that should rise to the attention of the Governor, the Attorney General and the Legislature” — DHHS again tried to hide the truth.
Then-DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards claimed that the department had caught itself before making a mistake. It had “sought clarification from the federal government on technical issues throughout the process and ultimately withdrew our spending plan well within allowable timeframes when we couldn’t determine whether the spending plan would be approved,” she wrote in an email.
But records, again brought to light by this newspaper, show DHHS didn’t request that federal guidance until after it had reversed the spending.
The BDN again confirmed the cover-up in February by requesting more than 300 pages of internal DHHS emails that showed the department knew that a federal law prohibited its use of the funds on services for the elderly, and had warnings from state finance staff, but went ahead with the spending anyway.
Who will hold the leaders of DHHS accountable, not just for their unlawful spending but their lies and attempt to conceal the truth?
Recently we learned it wouldn’t be the federal government, which said it likely would not levy a penalty against DHHS. That’s because the department reversed the unlawful spending — and the fine would have to come from the TANF account, harming only beneficiaries.
Legislators haven’t taken action against the department on this matter.
Under another governor, Mayhew would likely have been punished, perhaps even fired. Instead, she is running for governor herself.
It appears it will be up to the press to continue to bring sunshine to the powerful’s misdeeds. But ultimately it will be up to you — readers and voters — to make the final call on whether this brand of government will get another go.
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