If there ever was a lesson on how not to spend the taxpayers’ money, we got one from the collapse of the Maine Green Energy Alliance.

Start with a few former state employees with more political connections than fully realized ideas, add the lure of a fat federal government grant and set a short deadline to come up with a plan that will look like it fits the criteria for funding.

What you get is the MEGEA, which won a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy resulting in the weatherization of 50 homes between August and the end of 2010.

In the meantime, the organization spent $355,000, with more than half paid as salary to its executive director and nine paid staff members. It also spent $47,000 on legal fees to Tom Federle, a former legal counsel for the Baldacci administration. Federle founded the alliance and was instrumental in getting enabling legislation for it through the Legislature.

The paid staff included community organizers who hit the streets in eight targeted Maine communities to encourage people to weatherize their homes. Since the benefits of insulation are hardly news, especially during this harsh winter, the money would have been better used to actually do the work.

Facing mounting criticism, MEGEA’s board voted to shut the organization down and turned its resources over to Efficiency Maine, a quasi-state agency that oversees weatherization efforts. It has a popular and successful program that has rebated retrofitting in 1,700 homes, but its fund is running out of money.

Lawmakers are looking into what went wrong here, as they should. This episode illustrates, in the words of Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, “how free people are with federal money, and how easy it is for that money to be lost in the shuffle.”

This episode also shows the backward process this kind of funding creates. Instead of finding a need and looking for funding to fill it, they start with the money and try to design a program that fits.

It’s not that energy efficiency and home weatherization are undesirable aims, but this outfit clearly drew up a plan that looked good on paper but did not come through in real life.

The easy-federal-money days are over. Concern about the nation’s debt and a new Republican-controlled House of Representatives mean that it’s not enough to spend money quickly; it also should be spent wisely. For this program, that clearly was not the case.