Inside Augusta

Emails raise questions on House Speaker’s ties to major Medicaid expansion beneficiary

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sweetserThe chief Democratic advocate for Medicaid expansion may have misrepresented his professional relationship with a private school that stands to benefit financially from expanding the medical welfare program known as MaineCare.

In June, The Maine Wire reported exclusively that House Speaker Mark W. Eves (D-North Berwick), who has advocated stridently for MaineCare expansion, also served as Director of Business Development for Sweetser, a non-profit social service agency that is heavily reliant on MaineCare funding and has benefited from previous expansions of MaineCare. (According to tax documents, Sweetser files as a private school.)

sweetser speakerAt the time, Eves dismissed suggestions that he had a conflict of interest, stating that he had taken a leave of absence from Sweetser and had not received a paycheck since January. Officials from Sweetser likewise stated that the potential conflict of interest had been handled prudently.

But emails obtained via a public record request indicate Eves has engaged in Sweetser-related activities as recently as October and continues to represent himself in biographical materials as a current director at Sweetser.

In one email, Eves’ Chief of Staff Ana Hicks indicates that legislative activities need to be scheduled around Eves’ obligations with Sweetser.

In the August 19 email to Eves, subject line “October Council meeting,” Hicks writes, “Does tuesday work for you? Jane [Figoli] and I had talked about mondat (sic) but thought you might want to avoid Mondays bc of sweetser. Thanks!”

That exchange suggests Eves has had an ongoing professional relationship with Sweetser more than ten months after he allegedly took a leave of absence.

The House Speaker’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Since becoming the 101st Speaker of the Maine State House of Representatives, Eves has worked with singular devotion to expand MaineCare. He has written several op-eds advocating for an expansion of the program pursuant to the federal Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare. His only floor speech of the 126th Legislature was a call to expand the welfare program.

Sweetser was a major beneficiary of past MaineCare expansions and stands to reap a multi-million dollar financial windfall should the Speaker’s signature legislation win approval.

In a June interview with The Maine Wire, Sweetser CEO Carlton D. Pendleton acknowledged the impact of MaineCare expansion for his non-profit as well as the appearance of a conflict of interest for Eves.

“We knew this could have happened when he became Speaker,” said Pendleton. “After he was elected Speaker, we decided it would be best for Mark to take a leave of absence.”

[RELATED: Lawmakers spar over Speaker's potential conflict of interest...]

Pendleton said Sweetser is “probably 80 percent dependent on state and federal matching funds,” in reference to MaineCare and Medicare funds, which are shared between the state and federal governments.

According to Sweetser’s most recent tax filings, Pendleton makes $296,922 for his work with the non-profit school.

Sweetser maintains a vigorous lobbying effort, spending $70,000 or more each year on legislative education. Although the organization has not filed any lobbying paperwork for this legislative session, state records indicate that it did lobby on the first Medicaid expansion. According to its website, “Sweetser perennially urges lawmakers to … provide adequate funding for medication management therapy for individuals who use both MaineCare (Medicaid) and Medicare.”

Following Maine’s first expansion of MaineCare eligibility in 2003, Sweetser saw an increase of 25 percent in Medicare- and Medicaid-related revenue, according to tax documents.

The Medicaid expansion proposal presently under consideration is significantly larger than the first expansion, meaning Sweetser’s slice of taxpayer pie could grow even more. The current proposal Eves is pushing could mean an increase of $20 million or more in Sweetser’s taxpayer-funded revenue stream, as Medicaid would pay for up to 70,000 new taxpayer-funded clients.

Although Eves has said that he began a leave of absence from Sweetser in January, thus negating the appearance of a conflict of interest, several additional emails show that the Speaker has continued to represent himself as Sweetser’s director of business development.

In one March 10 email exchange, Ramona du Houx, owner of Maine Insights, offers Eves and his communications director Jodi Quintero an advanced preview of an interview featuring the speaker. The story, which presumably was fact-checked by the Speaker’s office, states: “When not in Augusta, [Eves] is helping people resolve conflicts, as a marriage and family therapist, and serves as business development director for Sweetser, a statewide behavioral health-care organization for children, adults, and families.”

Similar emails containing copies of Eves’ biography clearly imply that Eves is the current director of business development at Sweetser.

An email from Sean Smith on April 2 states, “In his professional life, Speaker Eves is a marriage and family therapist by training and serves as the business development director for Sweetser, a state-wide behavioral health care organization for children, adults and families.”

Indeed, nearly every mention of Eves’ biography included in the emails reflects his current and active role as business development director for Sweetser. Eves’ public LinkedIn.com profile also lists his current employers as “State of Maine, Sweetser, Private Practice.”

In an Aug. 19 email from Quintero, subject line “Updated bio for Governing Magazine,” Eves’ updated biography initially included similar language reflecting his role as director of business development for Sweetser. But according to the emails, Eves requested an edit, replying: “lools god just take out sweetser stuff. Thx”.

It is unclear from the emails why Eves suggests removal of the “sweetser stuff.”

Additional emails show that Sweetser employees have taken advantage of their special connection with one of the most powerful Democratic lawmakers.

In a Jan. 21 email to Eves, Silas Paul Archambault, who claims to be an employee of Sweetser, writes, “I am pleased to learn that I now have a direct constituency with you as our Speaker.”

“I have no specific requests or demands at the moment,” he writes.

In a second email, a woman who claims to work for Sweetser lobbies Eves on MaineCare and Medicare reimbursements for Licensed Clinical Professional Counselors.

Expanding MaineCare as proposed by Eves and other legislative Democrats would cost Maine taxpayers $70 million in FY 2016-17, $102 million in FY 2018-19 and $150 million in FY 2020-21, according to estimates from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

[Recommended: Misleading Arguments for Medicaid Expansion...]

The proposal was defeated in the first session of the 126th Legislature and reconsideration of a defeated proposal in the second regular session is prohibited under the rules of the Legislature. However, Eves has said he plans to ignore the rule in order to bring Medicaid expansion back.

Steve Robinson
Maine Wire Reporter
serobinson@themainewire.com

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson the editor of The Maine Wire. A native of Dexter, Maine, Robinson is a graduate of Bowdoin College.

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