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Editorial: Maine media's alternate universe

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Sometimes, reading the Maine newspapers is like being transported into an alternate universe.

This weekend was a great example. After the Government Oversight (OPEGA) report confirmed that Maine State Housing Authority had spent over $400,000 on contributions and donations and more than $44,000 on “staff celebrations”, that former director Dale McCormick had personally been reimbursed for over $50,000 in travel costs and that she was reimbursed for nearly $10,000 of non-business meal expenses, Maine newspapers quickly conjured up a far different picture.

Here are a few headlines:

  • Bangor Daily News: “Watchdog agency finds no wrongdoing at MaineHousing after months of furor”
  • Portland Press Herald: “Housing authority probe finds no fraud”
  • MPBN: “MaineHousing Review Finds no Evidence of Wrongdoing”

That’s the spin from the Maine media. Now here are the facts:

OPEGA found that at least $458,410 was spent between 2007 and 2011 on “contributions specifically for sponsorships, donations, and membership.”

The report found that former director McCormick incurred at least $50,000 in reimbursements for travel and meals in just five years. That total included at least 40 out-of-state trips and two international trips.

In all, 62 MaineHousing staff members attended 89 conferences in just five years between 2007 and 2011. The total cost exceeded $115,000.

The report also stated that receipts for travel, meals and lodging were not always provided, leaving the door open for fraud.

McCormick spent, or was reimbursed for $9,625 in meals that took place when she was not travelling and when no business purpose was documented.

MaineHousing spent $309,400 on “teambuilding, recognition and appreciation, and wellness incentives,”according to the report. This total includes more than $70,000 in gift cards, awards, gift, flowers and coffee. Another $106,000 was for staff training including “leadership” and “diversity training.”

Staff “celebrations” costs taxpayers a total of more than $44,000 in just the five years OPEGA looked at. OPEGA questioned the practice, noting that, “the frequency with which these expenses were incurred cause us to question whether they were all truly necessary.”

The OPEGA report also highlights a purchase of $17,412 for artwork for the MaineHousing offices. The art was purchased from Greenhut Galleries, in Portland. Greenhut Galleries is owned by Peggy Greenhut Golden, who previously worked as the head of the Maine Art Commission under former Governor Angus King.

Also of concern to OPEGA was $3,500 in bonuses given to vendors. Also, former director Dale McCormick used MaineHousing funds to pay for consultants to accompany her to conferences associated with MaineHousing’s “carbon project.” The OPEGA report does not give details, but does highlight a 2008 conference when McCormick was reimbursed $3,245, some of which covered the cost of a consultant attending the New York carbon conference.

To read more about the OPEGA report findings, click here.

Now, let’s read that headline again: “Watchdog agency finds no wrongdoing at MaineHousing”

It’s hard to tell what the Bangor Daily News would regard as ‘wrongdoing’, but wasting hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on travel and meals that have nothing to do with the function of the agency comes pretty close to ‘wrongdoing’ in my book.

In fact, the OPEGA report doesn’t even get into the potential millions in wasted money on failed carbon-trading schemes. All this, while 6,500 families sit on a waiting list for affordable housing, and hundreds of Maine families go without heating assistance.

Earlier this year, former Maine Housing Director Dale McCormick said “People will die” because Maine Housing lacked enough funds to provide heating assistance to those who need it. The average LIHEAP recipient in Maine receives roughly $800 a year for heating assistance.

This small sample from OPEGA shows McCormick chose to spend well over $1 million on non-essential travel, meals, staff celebrations, bonuses, gift cards, and other items – every dollar of which could have gone to help poor Mainers heat their homes.

That’s more than 1,000 Maine families that did without heating assistance because McCormick chose to do business this way.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Those in the media that try to portray this report as somehow positive for the previous management of Maine Housing are simply living in a different reality, and the more details that emerge, the more evident it will become how truly out-of-touch Maine’s newspapers have become.

One exception to this was the Lewiston Sun Journal. Editor Judy Meyer today wrote a fair piece about the report, pointing out the limited nature of the OPEGA inquiry, and rightly noting that expenditures at Maine Housing were out of order. We don’t always agree with the Sun Journal editorial board, but it’s a relief to see that at least one of Maine’s daily papers refuses to drink the left-wing Kool-Aid.

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently producer for the Howie Carr Show. Follow him on Twitter @Stevie_Rob or send him an email at Steve@HowieCarrShow.com.

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