What do prison theater classes have to do with affordable housing? As the state scrambles to replace millions in reduced heating oil assistance funding, and as a shortage in available affordable housing units relegates an estimate 6,500 families to a waiting list, the management of scarce government funding has become a prime topic in Augusta. The zero-sum nature of state and federal financial support has caused many to question why the Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA) spent tens of thousands on programs that seem unrelated to their mission – including $15,000 on a program to promote theater classes in Maine prisons. The similarities to spending patterns at another quasi-state agency, the Maine Turnpike Authority, also raise the specter of a more serious problem at MSHA.
Since 2008, MSHA has contributed more than $50,000 to a variety of organizations, some whose connection to housing is disputed, including more than $11,000 in the first three months of 2011 alone. Along with the support of Maine Inside Out, a group that “introduce[s] theater as a legitimate and empowering method of communication accessible to everyone”, much of the scarce government funds have gone to sponsorship of events – such as the Go Green Expo, the Festival of Nations, and the Cool Congress Conference.
MSHA also donated taxpayer funds to a group called Maine Initiatives, “Maine’s leading social justice foundation”, according to their website. Maine Initiatives is a grassroots political organization that counts among its advisors and board members a veritable who’s who of Democrat luminaries – including Assistant Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond (D- Portland), Hancock County Democrat Party Secretary Phil Bailey, Maine State Employee union president Chris Quint, environmentalist Brownie Carson, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and former Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree.
In addition to questions about relevancy to MSHA’s purpose, a number of these organizations have direct ties to staff of MSHA or housing organizations that receive state contracts. One organization, Women Unlimited (WU), received event sponsorship for their tradeswoman conference in 2008, 2010, and 2011. WU was founded by current MSHA director Dale McCormick in the 1980s. Another, the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, received $3000 in 2010 for the creation of an “outreach – voucher video.” The coalition has several members that receive MSHA funding, including Avesta Housing.
The New England Resident Services Coordinators’ Conference was sponsored in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011, at a total cost of $10,500. The Vice President of that organization, Patricia Wilson, works for Phoenix Management Company, which handles several MSHA housing contracts in Southern Maine.
Last spring allegations of spending abuse arose in the Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA), eventually forcing the resignation of its director, Paul Violette, who had run the agency since 1988. On December 15th the MTA announced that it had reached an agreement with Violette where he would pay back $430,000 in misspent MTA funds to settle a civil suit. The suit alleged that Violette spent more than $150,000 of MTA money on gift cards which were spent either by himself or donated to organizations that lacked relevancy to turnpike business. It also claimed that he was paid for more than $160,000 in vacation and sick time to which he was not entitled. While Violette reached an agreement for financial settlement with MTA, he still faces possible criminal charges for his conduct.
Peter Anastos, chairman of the Board of MSHA, expressed concern over the donations. “We have started to look at the MSHA sponsorships, especially in light of the controversy at the Maine Turnpike Authority, where money was given to organizations without connection to the mission of the turnpike. We are working to ensure that this does not happen with MSHA, and that sponsorship dollars are not going to organizations that do not directly impact Maine housing.”
MSHA did not respond to questions regarding the vetting process for these donations in time for the publication of this article. The Maine Wire looks forward to following up on this story with further information.