On Thursday, Maine’s Government Oversight Committee (GOC) conducted a series of interviews following up on an Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) report over the Good Will-Hinckley (GWH) controversy.
At the heart of the report is a whether the governor threatened to cut off state funding to GWH.
Thursday’s interviews included testimony from key players in the GWH affair, including two subpoenaed members of the LePage administration, Chairman of GWH and employee of Speaker Mark Eves, Bill Brown, and President of the Harold Alfond Foundation (HAF), Greg Powell.
The day was filled with interesting tidbits about what actually occurred in June, as well as pushback from LePage advisers against the current OPEGA narrative. Below are my key takeaways from the interviews:
1. The Threat of Cutting Funding Was Not Explicit
The OPEGA report noted that “[t]hose on the receiving end of these communications clearly understood the Governor’s “support” to mean the $530,000 in COE funding for the upcoming biennium.” Under oath, the governor’s senior policy adviser, Aaron Chadbourne claimed that he had never told anyone that GWH’s funding was at stake over the school’s decision to hire Eves.
Later, GWH lobbyist Sarah Vanderwood admitted that funding was never mentioned. Instead, the conversation circled around the governor’s support for the school, although Vanderwood interpreted this as meaning funding.
Similarly, HAF President Greg Powell acknowledged that funding was never mentioned in his communication with LePage. Again, Powell interpreted the governor’s support as funding for the school.
Tom Desjardin of the Department of Education also claimed that he never mentioned cutting the school’s funding. He claims that he only mentioned the loss of the governor’s support.
Ultimately, it’s unclear what the meaning of the governor’s “support” was. While there’s clearly reason to suspect that the administration did mean to infer that it equated funding for GWH, both the OPEGA report and Thursday’s interviews failed to turn up a smoking gun.
2. Good Will-Hinckley Had Little Intention Of Reducing State Funding
The OPEGA report makes it clear that GWH’s state funding was never meant to be permanent. Funding was initially approved in order to help the school get on its feet, but the governor and the legislature have continued to provide funding past when support should have tapered off.
In his remarks, Desjardin stated that GWH was on the chopping block for state funding before the controversy surrounding Eves’ hiring.
Despite the common understanding that the funding was only a temporary measure, GWH hired a lobbyist in order to maintain that funding. In fact, GWH lobbyist Sarah Vanderwood noted that she was hired with the sole goal of keeping funding for GWH in the budget. There’s no sign that GWH was interested in reducing its state funding, which leads to my third point.
3. What Were Eves’ Qualifications?
Eves’ qualifications for the job have come under constant attack from Republicans, with Governor LePage going as far as claiming that Eves’ high was the result of cronyism.
“This back-room deal between cronies is exactly the kind of political corruption I came to Augusta to fight against,” said LePage. “I will not stand for it and neither will the Maine people. Speaker Eves has been an ardent foe of charter schools for his entire political career, then he turns around and gets hired to run a charter school—whose board is chaired by Eves’ own State House employee—for a cushy job worth about $150,000 in total compensation. To provide half-a-million dollars in taxpayer funding to a charter school that would be headed by Maine’s most vehement anti-charter-school politician is not only the height of hypocrisy, it is absolutely unacceptable.”
When Representative Deb Sanderson of the GOC questioned Bill Brown about Eves’ qualifications, however, she was shut down. Republican Senator Roger Katz joined the committee’s Democrats in voting to end any questioning of Eves’ qualifications. Eves’ qualifications form that backbone of the administrations opposition to his hiring, and remain the unanswered question of Thursday’s interviews.
Still, given Thursday’s testimonies, it’s possible to take an educated guess.
State funding was a serious priority for GWH. It was so important, in fact, that they hired a lobbyist with the sole intention of maintaining state funding. When asked by the Maine Ethics Commission, however, James Jurdak, Vice President of Fnance and Administrative Services for GWH, claimed that the loss of state funding would have little impact on the school. He went so far as to claim that he could “foresee no significant impact on the number of students attending” GWH due to the loss of funding, and stated that there would be no need for salary cuts or layoffs.
Jurdak gave the Maine Ethics Commission the clear impression that state funding was not a major issue for GWH. Vanderwood’s role calls this into question though.
Additionally, the posting for the job that Eves was applying for required “[e]xperience working with legislators, state policy makers, and governmental agencies.” It’s difficult to interpret this as anything other than a need to maintain state funding, but again, it’s no smoking gun. Based on Vanderwood’s testimony as to the importance of state funding for GWH, the question arises as to whether part of GWH’s decision to hire Eves was based on their perception that he could help them maintain state funding.
Unfortunately, due to opposition from Katz and Democrats, the GOC won’t be looking into this question.