Monday, March 10, 2014
By Ann S. Kim firstname.lastname@example.org
PORTLAND - Email messages among state officials, representatives of the Maine Heritage Policy Center and others document a "witch hunt" that targeted the head of the Maine State Housing Authority, says the political organization Maine's Majority.
Chris Korzen, executive director of Maine's Majority, said Friday that his organization sought the emails of state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and housing authority board Chairman Peter Anastos through a Freedom of Access Act request because it saw evidence of collusion between government officials and the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center in their intense criticism of Dale McCormick.
Korzen, whose organization describes itself as representing the 61 percent of Maine voters who did not support Gov. Paul LePage in the 2010 election, said the emails document an inappropriate collaboration between the officials and an outside interest group.
"This is Maine Heritage Policy Center's job. That's what their big donors pay them for," he said. "The question is, to what extent are state officials allowing them to influence the process? They're supposed to be working for the people, right?"
Poliquin said his criticism of McCormick, who resigned in March, was not about politics or personality but about the wise use of limited tax dollars.
"There is nothing improper or inappropriate in how we exposed the wasteful spending at MSHA," Poliquin said. "(Maine's Majority) is a very partisan political group and I'm sure they're uncomfortable that for the first time in 30 years, we're holding public officials accountable for wasting taxpayer money."
On Friday, the state Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability issued a report on spending by the housing authority, concluding that while most of the expenses it examined were connected to the authority's mission, some might be unnecessary and should be reviewed.
Maine's Majority released 18 email threads this week. They include communications about information provided to state officials by the policy center, media strategy and prospective candidates for the housing authority's board.
An email sent from Lance Dutson, chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, to Poliquin and Anastos flagged housing authority contributions to some "ridiculous" groups, including an arts organization that facilitates theater workshops for inmates and formerly incarcerated people. The organization received $6,200 in 2009 and $6,800 in 2011.
"Do you know if it's legal for MSHA to be donating money to these groups. It kind of blows me away that they could contribute to anything," Anastos replied. "In all seriousness, I would be all over them if they were donating to Maine Heritage."
A message from Sam Adolphsen, a writer for The Maine Wire, the political blog of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, provided Anastos with a list of the housing authority's hotel vendors.
In one email, Poliquin discussed changes he made to an opinion piece written by Anastos and suggested that Anastos "run it by Lance."
In another email, about a report on housing units failing inspections, Poliquin asked Dutson to provide "exec summary of even bullet points" with the goal of showing that the authority failed to solve the problem after knowing about it for two years and "other ways to demonstrate incompetence."
In one email thread, Laura Santini-Smith of the state Department of Economic and Community Development offered to connect Poliquin with Dutson and former state Sen. Phil Harriman, who is on a radio show on WGAN. She advised Poliquin to seek national conservative media coverage.
"Going national should help boot Dale out," she wrote.
A couple of the email threads discuss prospective housing authority board members. One from Poliquin to Mike Hersey, the governor's director of boards and commissions, described one candidate, Donald Capoldo, as a "big GOP activist and true conservative" and a "huge" LePage supporter.
"With this support, the new Administration will have 5 of 9 votes," Poliquin wrote.
Capoldo is now on the board.
Korzen said those email threads show the emphasis on partisanship on the housing authority's board.
Dutson said Friday that his organization has always been interested in getting to the bottom of public expenditures, not just in the case of McCormick and the housing authority. He said the policy center will continue to interact with all kinds of government agencies and personnel, just as other advocacy groups do.
Dutson said it shouldn't be shocking that his organization is involved in state government. He noted that his predecessor, Tarren Bragdon, ran LePage's transition team and that Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen was the policy center's education policy director.
"What I think you have here is a lot of nasty adjectives and adverbs around zero substance," Dutson said of the allegations of Maine's Majority.
Anastos said he and the Maine Heritage Policy Center have an interest in solving spending problems, and the policy center had information through Freedom of Access Act requests that authority board members weren't able to get themselves.
He said that included information about the housing inspections and a list of conferences that members of the housing authority's staff attended -- 42, in locales including Denmark and Japan, over five years.
"I know it sounds crazy that (the policy center) had more facts than the board, but that's absolutely what happened," he said.
Anastos does not contend that fraud occurred in the housing authority, but said he believes it misused some money, lost focus and allowed costs to escalate.
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: