AUGUSTA – Two conservative Maine groups released a secretly recorded video Thursday that they say exposes “vulnerabilities” in Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services.

In the video, released by Americans for Prosperity and the Maine Heritage Policy Center, an actor visits a DHHS office in Biddeford. The man, calling himself “Ted Ceanneidigh,” tries to receive Medicaid benefits while broadly hinting that he is a drug smuggler. However, the man did not receive benefits.

The video was sent to Carol Weston, state director of Americans for Prosperity in Maine, by James O’Keefe, who calls himself a citizen journalist. His Project Veritas effort has generated controversy and criticism nationally for using heavily edited video clips to expose illegal activities or liberal media bias. His past targets have included ACORN and Planned Parenthood.

Gov. Paul LePage, who campaigned for office in part on a pledge to reduce welfare fraud, said Thursday that he thinks the video, which reportedly was shot in February, shows the worker was inexperienced and inadequately trained. But he emphasized no fraud occurred.

“We need to be far more professional and we have to provide better training and I take complete responsibility for that,” said LePage, who briefed reporters along with DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew. “That is my job to make sure that happens.”

But he added, “I do not believe for a second that the individual involved was willfully allowing abuse of the welfare system.”

The shorter, edited version of the video shown at a news conference Thursday focuses on the response of the DHHS worker, identified only as Diane. The clip shows her saying the applicant can report that he has no income because he has no paychecks — despite the fact that he tells her he runs a cash business. He also tells her he owns a Corvette and shows her a photo of what he says is his boat, The Bob Marley.

Weston said the actor eventually left the state office with a form to apply for MaineCare benefits.

“This video reveals explosive evidence of the potential for fraud within Maine’s Medicaid system,” Weston said. “It replaces what have been unverifiable anecdotes of welfare system fraud and abuse with a concrete example of unethical and potentially illegal behavior within Maine’s welfare bureaucracy.”

The actor never returned the application for processing. In an interview, O’Keefe said his group felt it would be committing fraud to do so.

But in a 49-minute version of the video that Americans for Prosperity also released, the worker also repeatedly tells the actor, who speaks with an Irish accent, that she cannot help him fill out his application until he presents photo identification, a passport or naturalization papers. She also repeatedly tries to get him to apply for insurance through Dirigo Health, which offers subsidized insurance but would require him to pay a premium.

The DHHS worker also consults her supervisor, who questions the applicant and tells him that he is being evasive.

O’Keefe said the Maine video is part of a wider effort by him and his backers to expose Medicaid fraud across the country.

He said Maine was selected because its laws allow people to be videotaped without their knowledge if one person — in this case, the person doing the taping — is aware of it.

“So far in all the videos we’ve done — it’s not just Maine — we have seen instances where people don’t do the right thing. I don’t believe that’s the individual employee, I think that’s the system that cultivates this type of behavior,” he said, citing examples in Ohio, Virginia and South Carolina.

The nonprofit Project Veritas is funded by small donors who give online, O’Keefe said. He said he distributed the video to Americans for Prosperity in Maine and not LePage’s office because he didn’t “have a lot of contacts up there” and wanted to ensure the video would get widely distributed.

Weston said her group did not solicit the video.

O’Keefe’s undercover work got him in legal trouble last year when he pleaded guilty in federal court to entering property belonging to the United States under false pretenses. He and three accomplices were arrested in January 2010 in U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office in the Hale Boggs Federal Complex in New Orleans.

O’Keefe, as leader of the group, received the stiffest sentence: three years of probation, a fine of $1,500 and 100 hours of community service.

Lance Dutson, chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, which also hosted Thursday’s news conference, said the video supports the theory his group has about the “culture” at DHHS.

“It shows clearly what many of us have believed for some time: that Maine’s welfare system is exceedingly vulnerable to fraud, and that we have front-line stewards of taxpayer funds who are not adequately equipped to perform their duties,” he said.

LePage said he wishes he could have seen the video in February, when it was reportedly filmed, so he could have addressed the problem earlier.

Mayhew defended the DHHS supervisor and the initial caseworker’s willingness to call her boss to help her.

“There are positives we also need to focus on,” Mayhew said.

Mayhew declined to discuss whether or not the DHHS worker, Diane, has been subject to disciplinary action.

“We need to focus on the system,” she said.

A recently created fraud-and-abuse work group had already identified the need for improved training for front-line workers, LePage and Mayhew said, but they said the video also provides a catalyst for action.

Sara Gagne-Holmes, of Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group for low-income Mainers, emphasized that the video showed no actual fraud and the applicant did not receive any benefits.

“I don’t think it shows any fraud; to say that it is an example of fraud is speculative,” she said. “But to say this is an example of all the anecdotes that we’ve heard in the past is false.”

O’Keefe said another video was shot at a different DHHS office in Maine and he hopes to unveil it soon. 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

rmetzler@mainetoday.com