Two thoughts came to mind after I sat down to my computer Friday morning and watched the so-called “sting” of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services by a shoot-from-the-hip actor posing as … how do I put this tactfully … a 26-year-old moron with an Irish accent.
First, the 49-minute video — and yes, you need to watch the whole obnoxious thing before reaching any valid conclusions — is enough to make your hair hurt.
Second, if there’s a “smoking gun” in this anything-but-shocking story, it’s the one Maine’s welfare warriors just used to shoot themselves in the foot.
The video, recorded last February by a lad calling himself Ted Ceanneidigh (pronounced “Kennedy” — get it?), is the latest work of Project Veritas. It’s run by “citizen journalist” James O’Keefe, who has a knack for taking long, unremarkable undercover videos and distilling — no, make that distorting — them down to a few minutes of pure “gotcha.”
In short, the guy’s unbelievable.
In his latest tour de force, O’Keefe, (who’s currently serving three years of probation for trying to sneak into a federal building in New Orleans under false pretenses) sent young Ted to the DHHS office in Biddeford. The goal: Talk a caseworker named Diane into giving him Medicaid coverage despite a story that’s as murky as a pint of Guinness.
Throughout the video, Ted labors mightily to imply, without coming out and saying so, that he’s a drug dealer posing as a fisherman who lives comfortably off his unwitting parents — it seems he has unfettered access to their $400,000 checking account.
Early on, Diane tells Ted she can’t help him unless he produces a proper ID and a passport or naturalization papers. She also steers him toward an extension of his soon-to-expire coverage under his parents’ private health policy or, if that’s too costly, a policy of his own through Maine’s DirigoChoice program.
As for Medicaid (known in these parts as MaineCare), Diane says, the best she can do is put Ted on a waiting list — assuming, of course, he qualifies.
Throughout it all, a maddeningly persistent (and easily befuddled) Ted asks over and over about the cash he gets from his parents, noting, “None of this is declared.”
Responds Diane, “You don’t have a paycheck. You don’t file taxes. You have no income.”
Cue the welfare alarm — we’ve got ourselves a scandal here!
Or do we?
A short time later, Diane is joined by a higher-up, also named Diane, who tries mightily — and alas, unsuccessfully — to get to the bottom of Ted’s financial situation. Ted, drug-dealing fisherman that he isn’t, remains slippery as an eel.
“OK, because you’re being kind of evasive to some of the questions, it kind of makes me ask a lot more questions, do you understand?” asks the second Diane.
Ted understands, all right. And the more the second Diane probes, the more he slips and slides until he finally bids the two Dianes good day and departs with a blank MaineCare application in hand.
Bottom line, Ted got nothing — except for a few snippets of video that, after some very creative editing, in no way represent what actually happened.
No matter. Let the hallucinations begin.
“An outside investigation into Maine’s Medicaid system reveals a shocking potential for fraud within Maine’s vast welfare bureaucracy,” began a breathless press release from the Maine Heritage Policy Center. “And it’s all on video.”
Uh-huh. And exactly how does one videotape “potential?”
“This video reveals explosive evidence of the potential for fraud in Maine’s Medicaid system,” echoed Carol Weston, state director for Americans for Prosperity in Maine. “It replaces what have been unverifiable anecdotes of welfare-system fraud and abuse with a concrete example of unethical and potential illegal behavior within Maine’s welfare bureaucracy.”
Uh-huh. And since when does “potential” come in concrete?
Then there was Gov. Paul LePage and DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, who found themselves caught between the oh-so-tempting demagoguery and the inescapable fact that they’re in charge of the very operation that’s “potentially” full of fraud.
Mayhew at least had the decency to defend the first Diane for calling in the second Diane to help catch Ted’s never-ending curve balls. “There are positives we also need to focus on,” Mayhew correctly noted.
LePage, meanwhile, issued a statement that was a study in rhetorical whiplash: On one hand, he complained that “much time was wasted in this interview.” On the other, he said he wanted to “thank the individual who took this video.”
Thank him? For what? Wasting two state employees’ valuable time?
Bottom line for the Guv: While the video reveals no fraud whatsoever, “we need to do a better job providing our employees the best training possible and ensure they know their job and the responsibility that comes with it.”
Governor, train thyself.
This whole dog-and-pony show would be nothing but hilarious if not for the far-right mantra that propelled it to the top of Maine’s news cycle: This state and this country are going to hell in a hand basket, they tell us, and all those welfare cheats out there are to blame.
Go ahead and howl, welfare warriors, go ahead and howl.
But when you’re done, do yourselves — and the rest of us — a favor.
Dress Ted up as an investment banker and send him down to Wall Street in search of, say, a behind-the-scenes derivatives deal. Tell him to wave his hedge-fund balances around until someone guides him through one of the many loopholes still to be found in the Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010.
And Ted, before you hit that “record” button on your Brooks Brothers lapel?
Try not to be such an idiot.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: