Spending Spree: Gift cards, catering and travel top list of hundreds of thousands in questionable Maine Housing expenses
By The Maine Wire
Documents obtained by The Maine Wire show the Maine State Housing Authority has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on extraneous expenses – including gift cards, catering, travel, education, and consultants.
Data show MSHA made several high-dollar expenditures to Hannaford between 2008 and 2010, totaling $59,000. According to a source at Maine Housing, these payments were for gift cards that were handed out to employees, and many of the gift cards remain unaccounted for.
While an estimated 6,500 Maine families sit on a waiting list for affordable housing, and while federal cutbacks in low-income heating assistance mean needy families face a cold winter, Maine Housing, the agency in charge of mitigating both of these issues, has diverted a considerable amount of public money elsewhere.
Expenditure data released Tuesday gives a more detailed view of the massive amount of money spent by the quasi-state agency. It also raises serious questions about the financial management of the organization.
Perhaps the biggest question that emerges from the data is one of judgment. In 2011, Maine Housing Director Dale McCormick was featured in a video interview and claimed that the proposed federal reduction in low-income heating assistance would literally result in Maine people freezing to death. The average Maine LIHEAP recipient receives approximately $800 per year in assistance. While McCormick contends that families that do not receive this $800 payment may actually die, her organization has spent hundreds of thousands on items ranging from travel and entertainment to massage and ‘carbon consultants’.
McCormick’s agency spends a startling amount of money on meals. In 2010, Maine Housing spent more than $26,000 on catering services. While dining out with clients is an acceptable practice in private business, passing the cost of casual lunches off to Maine taxpayers is not. MSHA has spent thousands of dollars dining out, including nearly $2,000 in 2010 with the Vickerey Café, a small lunch restaurant around the corner from Maine Housing headquarters in Augusta.
To put this into perspective, Maine Housing’s catering budget alone could have provided heating assistance to more than 30 families in Maine in 2010.
Along with catered meals, Maine Housing uses public money to house meetings off-campus, despite paying more than $50,000 a month to lease a large waterfront building in Augusta. Since McCormick took over in 2005, MSHA has spent more than $35,000 hosting events at the Maple Hill Farm Bed and Breakfast, an inn located just miles away from MSHA headquarters. Maple Hill Farm is owned by former Democrat state senator Scott Cowger.
That’s another 44 families that could have received heating assistance.
Travel expense is another large-ticket item for Maine Housing. In 2010, MSHA spent more than $33,000 on travel. This does not include thousands more spent on education and training. Director Dale McCormick initially claimed in an interview with WCSH’s Don Carrigan that the travel expenditures were “required because of grants”. However, in a press release issued Wednesday, McCormick scaled back her claim, now stating that attendance was required only “in some cases.”
In addition to the MSHA-purchased travel, McCormick has been reimbursed for thousands of her own travel expenses. In fact, since she took over as Director, Dale McCormick has received more than $50,000 in travel and education reimbursements from the state agency.
The list of questionable expenditures is long. In 2010, MSHA spent $58,000 on marketing efforts with Burgess Advertising, the Portland agency owned by Maine Republican Representative Meredith Strang- Burgess. Burgess is one of the top marketing firms in the state, but the expenditure is questionable for one specific reason: there are already 6,500 Maine families on a waiting list for affordable housing units. In a market where MSHA can’t meet existing demand, spending the equivalent of more than 70 families’ worth of heating assistance in an effort to create more demand is puzzling.
In 2010, MSHA spent over $7,000 with Headlight Audio Video, a company that provides large-scale event setups for lighting and sound production. They also spent more than $14,000 with Catama Film & Video, a video production company. And in November of 2010, Maine Housing spent over $16,000 at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland.
On top of these expenses, Maine Housing spent tens of thousands in 2010 on consultant fees, including over $46,000 with Lucy Van Hook, a ‘carbon consultant’, and over $80,000 with Marjorie Love, a management services consultant who specializes in ‘Executive transitions.’
Altogether, initial analysis of the Maine Housing data shows several hundred thousand dollars per year spent on extraneous expenses. The elimination of travel, catering, gift cards, marketing, and audio/visual services could have provided nearly 300 families with heating assistance this winter.
This is not a comprehensive overview of the data released Tuesday. Many hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional questionable expenses are being reviewed, and The Maine Wire will continue to report on the data as we dig further into it.
The Maine State Housing Authority did not respond to The Maine Wire’s request for information for this article.