Legislative protocol went out the window on one front in Augusta on Thursday but managed to firmly step back in through a side door as the debate over Maine State Housing Authority accountability rumbles on.
First, the spirit of bi-partisanship surrounding the bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney intended to make the MSHA director accountable to the MSHA board of commissioners, dissipated when the two Democratic co-sponsors quit, without explanation and without the personal notification that customarily typifies legislative etiquette.
On the formal list of co-sponsor signatures, handwritten scrawls simply appeared beside the names of the two Democrats, stipulating that “Rep. Tuttle requested that his name be removed” and “Rep. Gilbert requested his name be removed.”
A written reaction from Courtney following the withdrawal stated, “It was very disappointing this morning to learn that two Democratic cosponsors have retreated in their support of LD 1778 ‘An Act Relating to the Governance of the Maine State Housing Authority,’ a bill that simply puts MSHA on par with oversight used at other quasi-government agencies such as the Maine Turnpike Authority.”
Courtney concluded, “That neither Representative John L. Tuttle, Jr. (D-Sanford) nor Representative Paul E. Gilbert (D-Jay) had the courtesy to speak with me of their reversal beforehand adds to my disappointment.”
Courtney’s office indicated that with a sufficient number of co-sponsors remaining with the Republican legislators, the progress of the bill will not be affected. Courtney has been seeking expedited consideration of the bill due to an increasing number of concerns raised recently regarding the lack of fiscal and policy-making accountability at MSHA.
But while two legislators quietly slipped away from standing up for accountability, 34 others — all Republicans — lined up to ask the Maine Attorney General to scrutinize MaineHousing activities — their request based on recent revelations of seemingly frivolous vendor expenditures and questionable donations to political groups with taxpayer dollars.
The letter was hand delivered to the AG’s office around noon on Thursday by Representative Richard Cebra (R-Naples). Cebra last year sponsored a bill informally known as the Turnpike Reform Bill (LD 1538) to look into similar allegations of mismanagement at the Maine Turnpike Authority.
Ironically, it was announced on Thursday that former Turnpike Authority Director Paul Violette reportedly pled guilty to a felony theft charge, pertaining to his actions at the MTA, under a plea agreement with the AG’s office. Speaking about the signatories of the letter to the AG regarding MSHA, Cebra said that “this group of legislators understand their duty, and based on the information that MSHA has released we were compelled to act. Just because you have a quasi-governmental agency does not mean it should be immune from government oversight.” And said Cebra, “there has not been a sufficient amount of oversight” at MSHA.
Although the legislative Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) is scheduled to review MSHA in the spring, Cebra expressed concern that the OPEGA investigation comes too late in the year for consideration of the results by the full legislature.
Cebra was also highly critical of MSHA foot-dragging in releasing complete details of vendor information to the Maine Heritage Policy Center six months after the formal Freedom of Access request by Maine Heritage. To date, MSHA has still only released a skeletal list of vendors with no dates and no monetary amounts — although sporadic details were released to MSHA proponents following an article about the vendor list on The Maine Wire. Cebra called it a “deliberate manipulation” on the part of MSHA, “to take the momentum out of the freedom of access request.”
There are consequences, said Cebra, “when people decide to put their own interest ahead of the interest of the people.”
January 19, 2011
Attorney General Schneider:
As members of the 125th Maine Legislature, we take seriously the charge of stewardship of taxpayer funds. Recent revelations of the potential abuse of those funds at the Maine State Housing Authority are disturbing, and we formally request your assistance in making sure the operations of that agency do not fall outside the scope of state or federal law. We also request your assistance in identifying legislative remedies that may prevent these types of expenditures in the future, if they are not covered by current law.
We ask that you review expenditures made to vendors that appear to have nothing to do with the Housing Authority’s obligation to provide affordable housing. These expenditures include luxury accommodations, entertainers, massage therapists, ski resorts, and many other questionable expenses. A report on the full scope of vendors can be found here: http://www.themainewire.com/2012/01/luxury-hotels-magicians-massage-maine-housing-vendor-list-reveals-questionable-expenditures/
We also request that you review the propriety of expenditures to state and national political organizations that appear on the list. It is clear that taxpayer funds should never be used for political purposes, but a pattern of this type of expenditure appears to be emerging from Maine Housing.
Finally, we request a review of the potential conflict of interest in payments made by the Housing Authority to companies or organizations directly affiliated with MSHA Director Dale McCormick. Specifically, expenditures to Women Unlimited, a group founded by McCormick, Moose Ridge Associates, a political consulting firm, run by McCormick’s former partner, and the New Iowans program, an immigrant assistance program that operates in another state.
We appreciate your assistance in reviewing the legality of these expenditures, and also hope you can help us identify holes in current law that may allow such indiscriminate waste of taxpayer funds. We appreciate your work on behalf of the people of Maine, and stand by our mutual charge to ensure our government operates in a way that makes every Mainer proud.
Representative Richard M. Cebra
Representative Deborah Sanderson
Representative Heather W. Sirocki
Representative Wayne R. Parry
Representative Susan Morrissette
Representative Beth A. O’Connor
Representative Michael D. McClellan
Representative Dale Crafts
Representative Alexander R. Willette
Representative Stacey Guerin
Representative Beth P. Turner
Representative Peter Rioux
Representative Karen D. Foster
Representative H. David Cotta
Representative David D. Johnson
Representative Ricky D. Long
Representative Richard S. Malabey
Representative Wesley S. Richardson
Representative Windol C. Weaver
Representative Phil Curtis
Representative Joan Nass
Representative Dean A. Cray
Representative Aaron Libby
Representative Jon McKane
Representative Ryan Harmon
Representative Russell Black
Representative Paul T. Davis
Representative Ralph W. Sarty Jr.
Representative Stacey A. Fitts
Representative Andre E. Cushing
Representative Kathleen D. Chase
Representative Lance Harvell
Representative James S. Gillway
Representative Eleanor Espling