Last Sunday, the Portland Press Herald published a report more than a year in the making: Maine taxpayers paid thousands of dollars since 2017 for former Gov. Paul LePage and members of his staff to stay at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
It’s a story that would have been written long ago — and perhaps received less fanfare — if the LePage administration had been more forthcoming about how it was spending taxpayer dollars on these trips involving state business.
But the administration stonewalled public records requests related to Washington trips for nearly two years, making a mockery of Maine’s Freedom of Access law and keeping the public in the dark.
Such was the LePage administration’s resistance to sharing this information that it took a new governor being elected for the documents to be released. And what did the paper find? At least $22,000 of taxpayer money spent on more than 40 hotel rooms over two years. Perhaps the most egregious details include two rooms costing more than $1,100 each, and hundreds of dollars spent on hotel food that included filet mignon.
The records also show that the high costs of some of the hotel rooms did not escape concern within state government at the time.
“The reason I am asking is because the Governor and some of his staff are staying in Washington, D.C. pretty frequently at the Trump International Hotel and the room cost is WAY more than the allowed amount,” a worker from the state controller’s office wrote in June 2017, according to the story. “He is not attending a conference of any type but is meeting with the President, testifying, meeting with lawmakers and others, etc. so the normal exemptions (to state spending limits) do not apply.”
It’s certainly not a good look for LePage, who stressed fiscal responsibility, actively worked to tighten welfare accessibility and pushed for restrictions on what types of food people could buy with government benefits. It’s understandable but in no way defensible that his administration would have been hesitant to release information about expensive hotel rooms and at least one steak dinner billed to Maine taxpayers.
LePage apparently did not respond when reporters attempted to contact him before the article was published. He did, however, respond to the report during a WGAN radio interview later in the week. It’s a familiar story arc for the former governor.
“I don’t read fiction,” LePage said, simultaneously panning the story while acknowledging he didn’t actually read it.
When pressed about the particularly expensive hotel rooms, his tone rightfully shifted somewhat.
“Listen, if we paid eleven hundred dollars for a hotel room in one night, shame on me,” he said. “Because I wasn’t aware of it, and shame on me, because I should have been on top of that.”
He’s absolutely right. And if he really believes that, he should be thanking the reporters at the Press Herald, not bashing them. Because without persistent journalists, the people of Maine — and, apparently, LePage himself — would still be unaware of just how much was being spent on these trips.