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Advocate or Analyst: Emails raise questions about non-partisan staffer’s role on HHS Committee

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AUGUSTA – A top Republican lawmaker on the Health and Human Services (HHS) Committee is questioning the objectivity of non-partisan legislative staff after emails obtained by The Maine Wire show one senior analyst engaging in questionable activity. 

The Maine Wire’s request for public records revealed extensive correspondence between Jane Orbeton, senior analyst on the Legislature’s HHS Committee, and employees of Maine Equal Justice Partners (MEJP), a left-wing advocacy group.

Committee analysts work under the Office of Policy and Legal Analysis (OPLA) and are tasked with conducting research on bill proposals and drafting bill language under the direction of the committee. Committee analysts are supposed to be non-partisan, helping Democrats and Republicans equally, without regard for party affiliations, but emails sent last year suggest Orbeton is aligned with Majority Democrats and liberal interest groups. 

In one email, Orbeton asks, possibly illegally, for the deletion of an email. In another instance, Orbeton asks why MEJP was not preparing litigation against the Department of Health and Human Services for problems with the Non-Emergency Medicaid Transportation program.

On Oct. 24 at 3:10PM, Orbeton sent an email to MEJP’s Litigation Director Jack Comart: “Is there any hope for low-income people?”

Comart responded: “A rhetorical question?” To which Orbeton answered: “Erase please.”

Erase Please

David Boulter, executive director for the Legislature, confirmed that Orbeton was asking for the deletion of an email sent from her government email account.

Under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, it is unlawful for any public employee to destroy public records, including emails sent from government accounts.

Boulter wrote the following in an email: “With respect to Ms. Orbeton’s “erase please” comment, that remark was in relation to her earlier remark in the email exchange regarding low income people.  Shortly after making that comment, she realized that her remark was not appropriate as it did not represent a committee or the legislature’s view and any personal view of hers was not relevant or appropriate, hence her follow-up comment.  No documents were erased or deleted.”

On Dec. 19, Orbeton sent an email to Comart, subject line: “Why no lawsuit?”

“Why hasn’t DHHS been sued for failure to provide NEMT [Non-Emergency Medicaid Transportation]?” wrote Orbeton.

Comart responded: “Very complicated. Hard to present a solution to a judge. Keep hoping it will be all better soon.”

DHHS Sued

In a brief email, Orbeton declined an interview but defended her emails regarding NEMT and potential lawsuits against DHHS.

Wrote Orbeton, “Although I decline an interview I would explain that in discussions of the performance by the MaineCare non-emergency transportation contractors I had been asked why DHHS had not been sued.  I asked the question as a general question in my capacity as staff to the HHS Committee.”

Orbeton did not respond to an email seeking clarification as to who asked her to inquire about MEJP’s potential litigation against DHHS.

Boulter and Orbeton’s justifications did little to convince Republicans that the non-partisan HHS staffer isn’t playing favorites.

“I do not think those are non-partisan activities,” said Rep. Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea), lead Republican on the HHS Committee. “Those activites are indicative of a clearly partisan attitude driven by a liberal agenda.”

Sanderson said Orbeton has not attempted to obstruct Republicans on the committee. “However, she walks a very fine line in committee pushing Democratic policy views,” she said.

Although TMW’s public record request turned up more than 150 pages of emails exchanged between Orbeton and MEJP employees, missing among the documents was any mention of Medicaid expansion, the single biggest item facing the HHS Committee.

Boulter said any emails related to Medicaid expansion were not included in the public records provided due to an exemption for “working papers” provided in Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

“[D]ocuments related to LD 1578 [Medicaid expansion] that you specifically mentioned in your most recent email were not included in the documents sent to you since under law, those documents are not “public records” under the Freedom of Access Act because that legislation is still pending with the Legislature,” wrote Boulter. “Please note, however, that working papers including those related to LD 1578 do become public records once the legislative session in which legislation is considered and acted upon has ended (anticipated to be April 2014).”

In other words, records related to the possibly partisan activities of the non-partisan staffer working on Medicaid expansion will be made available to the public only after legislative debate has concluded.

Sanderson said the withholding of public records related to Medicaid expansion is comparable to the LePage administration’s decision not to release early draft versions of the controversial Alexander Group report. Democratic lawmakers and liberal media outlets cried foul when administration officials declined to release draft versions of the report.

“One should be just as transparent as the other,” she said. “The Democrats can’t make two sets of rules.”

The potentially partisan inclinations of a senior analyst on the HHS Committee has significant implications for the ongoing debate over Medicaid expansion. While Republicans have relied on DHHS reports and the Alexander Group report as indicators of the proposals’ cost, Democratic lawmakers have pointed to the bill’s fiscal note – a note prepared by OPLA staffers like Orbeton – which shows a significantly smaller cost to taxpayers.

The concern is obvious: If “non-partisan” analysts in Augusta are actually rooting for the left-wing agenda, then how can moderate Democrats and Republicans trust their analysis?

 Bowling Club

Steve Robinson
Editor, Maine Wire

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