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OP/ED: 125th Legislature restored integrity to Maine state government

By Harold A. Clough

Before this Legislature leaves the stage, let’s remember one of its most enduring legacies. It restored honesty and accountability to state government by uncovering and cleaning up a quagmire of corruption and malfeasance.

Under the control of the Democratic Party for decades, the corruption was allowed to fester unchecked. The old adage about absolute power was never more true, and the people of Maine were paying the price.

In 2010, Maine voters elected Republican majorities to the House and Senate for the first time since 1966. As they began surveying state government, it soon became clear that serious problems had long been swept under the rug. It seemed that whenever they lifted the lid on another department, they discovered waste and fraud, oftentimes by renegade bureaucrats who ran their agencies like personal fiefdoms.

Exhibit A in this cavalcade of corruption was the Maine Turnpike Authority. Rumors had swirled around the State House for years that the MTA had become a “rogue” agency. Nothing was ever done, however, because the MTA was run by Paul Violette, a former Democratic Senate majority leader.

It was an unlucky day for Mr. Violette when Republicans were swept into power. Under the Government Oversight Committee, an investigation was launched by OPEGA—the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

The final report was devastating. The MTA, it turned out, had spent $2.3 million inappropriately, including $257,000 over four years on banquets, cookouts and service awards. Other state employees, meanwhile, were enduring salary freezes and furlough days. The MTA also spent $297,000 on donations and sponsorships of various organizations, some of which had no linkage to MTA’s mission.

Most notoriously, Violette spent $157,000 on gift cards for hotels and restaurants. He expensed them as work-related travel costs, but instead pocketed them for personal use. Overall, the MTA under Violette spent about $1.1 million in toll money from 2005 to 2009 on travel and meals. There were no internal controls to apply the brakes.

In the end, Violette was sentenced to 42 months in prison for felony theft, and the Legislature passed LD 1538 to require much more oversight and accountability at the MTA. When it became clear that Violette would still receive his state pension—more than $5,000 per month—the Legislature passed LD 1831 to give courts discretion to order the forfeiture of retirement benefits for public employees who commit serious crimes on the job.

Next, OPEGA set its sights on the Maine Green Energy Alliance (MGEA), another nest of Democratic malfeasance, shabby financial controls, poor record keeping and dubious time reporting by employees.

For one thing, OPEGA found that it was improper for the Efficiency Maine Trust and the Public Utilities Commission to have distributed $3 million in federal grant money to MGEA, when it had no ability to adequately administer those funds. After receiving the first $1.25 million of the grant, MGEA had completed only 5 percent of the energy audits required by the terms of the grant. The agency’s overall performance was in such a shambles that it was shut down.

Finally, OPEGA launched a probe into the Maine State Housing Authority. The final report revealed that MSHA made “unnecessary” expenditures “not typical of a state agency.”

The investigation found that while the median single-family home in Maine sells for $159,000, MSHA was spending $292,000 each for 1,100-square-foot units in a Waterville low-income project. The report also found that the MSHA executive director, Dale McCormick, had squandered tens of thousands of dollars on meetings in luxury settings, massages, magicians, karate lessons, a green energy scheme and other frivolous expenditures.

McCormick also spent enormous sums of taxpayers’ money on left-wing activist organizations that had nothing to do with housing policy. Was it just coincidental that one recipient of MSHA dollars was Moose Ridge Associates, a political consulting company founded and run by McCormick’s former partner, Betsy Sweet?

Meanwhile, 6,500 Maine families were wait-listed for affordable shelter.

In light of these findings, McCormick chose to resign. Republicans then led the way to a reform of MSHA with LD 1778 to make the executive director more accountable. The changes will prevent a repeat of the reckless spending that plagued the agency during McCormick’s reign.

Back when OPEGA was just starting, Democratic legislators tried to strangle it before it could begin uncovering the rampant corruption taking place under their watch. Thanks to determined Republican opposition, OPEGA survived. Can there be any doubt that without Republicans in charge, and without OPEGA investigations, none of these outrages would ever have been exposed?

Harold A. Clough, of Scarborough, served as a state representative in the 119th, 120th, 121st and 122nd Legislatures. He is a former business executive in the automotive field.

 

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