by Sam Adolphsen
What do social justice groups, professional DJs, massage therapists and luxury hotels have to do with affordable housing? That question is one of many which remain unanswered as the Maine State Housing Authority continues to delay the release of key expenditure details more than six months after a Freedom of Access Act request — for vendor records — was filed by the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Even minus the details, the skeletal vendor list obtained by MHPC reveals a pattern of questionable expenditures that will likely increase pressure on the quasi-state agency to open its books to public scrutiny.
The released list, which contains no dollar amounts, no transaction dates and no explanations for why money was paid, includes, as expected, thousands of landlords, contractors, and other vendors seemingly in keeping with MSHA’s mission to provide affordable housing to impoverished Mainers. But the list also contains hundreds of vendors that appear outside the scope of the Housing Authority – including hundreds of luxury hotels and bed and breakfasts, from Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas to The Black Point Inn in Scarborough.
Of the hotel listings, many stand out for their opulence, such as the Harbor Court Hotel in San Francisco, touted on its website as “San Francisco’s premier waterfront boutique hotel.” The Wyndham Miami Beach Resort asks guests to “indulge in beachfront accommodations and breathtaking ocean views.” Others include The Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas, The Ritz-Carlton in Boston, The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in New Hampshire, The Caribe Royal in Orlando, Florida, the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans and “The George” a D.C. boutique hotel that promotes itself as, “a modern masterpiece of lodging and lifestyle amenities in the heart of the Capitol Hill business district.”
Beyond the hotels, the vendor document also includes a listing for The Theatre at Monmouth, promoted as the “Shakespearean Theater of Maine,” where MSHA Director Dale McCormick has performed onstage, including a 2008 singing role in the chorus of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” McCormick also announced at a September 21, 2010 MaineHousing board meeting, according to the minutes, that “she would be performing in ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ at the Monmouth Theatre in dual roles of a policeman and a pirate.”
Another recipient of MSHA vendor dollars is Moose Ridge Associates, a political consulting company founded and run by Dale McCormick’s former partner, Betsy Sweet. The co-parenting relationship between McCormick and Sweet was discussed in a 1998 Bangor Daily News interview with McCormick.
The vendor list also suggests a predilection for parties. Vendors such as Riverback Dance Club (“Augusta Maine’s newest BYOB adult rock and roll dance club”), Munchy’s Music (“The BEST Private DJ Service for HIRE in Central Maine”) and DJ Extreme complement expenditures at Sandcastle Entertainment, which provides “inflatable bounces, slides, dunk tanks and games of skill for rental for birthday parties, reunions, and fundraisers.”
MaineHousing also lists, as a recipient of vendor dollars, the Saco family waterslide park Funtown/Splashtown USA, along with the Portland Pirates hockey team, the Great Falls Balloon Festival, and the Sunday River Ski Resort. The vendor list also includes more than a dozen motivational speakers and corporate training companies, a magician, and even Maine’s own Humble Farmer, Robert Skoglund.
MaineHousing has apparently written checks to a series of political organizations as well. Included on the list are the left-wing political activist groups EqualityMaine, Maine Equal Justice Partners and the Sierra Club. MSHA made expenditures to the Center for Community Change, which states on its website that ‘Only by challenging the “on your own” mentality of the right and building a new politics based on community values can we achieve social and economic justice.” And MSHA paid money to a political philanthropy organization called MaineShare whose mission is “to provide significant support to organizations doing progressive social justice and root cause work in Maine.” Also included is the Maine Association of Interdependent Neighborhoods, a group that describes itself as “People working together for peace, bread and justice.”
Also on the vendor list are a wide array of expenditures equally difficult to imagine as being connected to the affordable housing mission. These vendors include a series of martial arts facilities, Weight Watchers of Maine, chiropractors, the Maine Amateur Softball Association and Healing Hands Therapeutic Massage. Also among the vendors are the Maine Adoption Placement Services, Maine Businesses for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Social Responsibility, New Hampshire Society of CPAs, New Foundation for the Arts and the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
A long list of gender-specific groups populate the recipient list of state taxpayer funds as well, including the Maine Women’s Fund, Maine Women’s Journal, National Association of Women in Construction, Institute for Professional Businesswomen, Women in Need Industries, Women, Work & Community, Women Unlimited, and the Society of Women Engineers. MSHA Director Dale McCormick is the founder of Women Unlimited.
A particularly inexplicable recipient of vendor dollars paid by MSHA is the New Iowans Program, a project of The Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration (ICILI) at the University of Northern Iowa. The program “guides and prepares Iowa communities and businesses as they accommodate immigrant and refugee newcomers living and working in Iowa.” Why the Maine State Housing Authority is writing checks to a group focused on the economic vitality of Iowa is a detail left unexplained by MSHA, although a passage from MSHA Director Dale McCormick’s biography may suggest a link: “Dale McCormick’s family moved to Sigourney, Iowa, in 1955; she graduated from Sigourney High School in 1965, and earned a BA and a teaching certificate from the University of Iowa in 1970.” McCormick published a book with the Iowa City Women’s Press, and ran a carpentry company in Iowa City from 1977 to 1980.
Revelations of vendor expenditures for luxury accommodations, political groups and entertainment extravaganzas come on the heels of the fallout from the Maine Turnpike Authority spending scandal, still being sorted out. The Maine Housing Authority operates in the same quasi-state capacity as the MTA. Patterns of similarity between the Turnpike Authority and MaineHousing have become more apparent in recent weeks, with questions arising over seemingly exorbitant salary increases and questions of possible financial mismanagement at the Housing Authority under McCormick’s leadership.
The Maine Heritage Policy Center first requested MSHA vendor data in the summer of 2011, as part of its MaineOpenGov.org initiative. Although Maine Heritage has paid the MSHA fees for complete copies of the vendor records requested, MaineHousing to date has provided only the pared down list of vendors with no accompanying details. Maine Heritage was subjected to a similar delay with the Maine Turnpike Authority, which stalled release of expenditure and salary data for 184 days before complying with the request.
Questions about Maine Turnpike salary increases led to an in-depth probe by the legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA), and the eventual resignation of MTA director of 23 years, after improper expenditures on luxury travel and personal expenses were revealed. OPEGA is currently scheduled to conduct a similar investigation of the Maine State Housing Authority, though prominent Democrats have sought to block further accountability. Senator Margaret Craven (D- Androscoggin County) told the Bangor Daily News there was no evidence of wrongdoing at MSHA, and has called the OPEGA investigation politically motivated. The full slate of Democrat legislative leaders –- Representative Emily Cain (D-Orono), Representative Terry Hayes (D-Buckfield), Senator Barry Hobbins (D-York County) and Senator Justin Alfond (D-Cumberland County) have all attempted to block a proposed legislative bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney (R-York County) to make the MSHA director accountable to the MSHA board of commissioners.
Although MSHA has delayed the public release of expenditure data for more than six months, MSHA actions have not matched McCormick’s rhetoric. Asked in October of 2011 about the upcoming OPEGA investigation, McCormick was quoted as responding, “Bring it on.”
“I think,” McCormick is quoted in the Bangor Daily News, “the more people know about what we do and how we do it, the prouder they are going to be. I think we are a model for how quasi-government agencies should be operated.”