April 15, 2012

Bill Nemitz: In Augusta, a look under the hood gets hot

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com

(Continued from page 1)

So now, as OPEGA prepares to sift through the whole mess and report back sometime this summer, two distinct narratives compete for our attention.

The Democrats say the administration knew there was a problem all along and deliberately kept it from the Legislature so the MaineCare downsizing -- high among LePage's legislative priorities -- could sail through unencumbered.

"We were lied to," said state Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, a member of both the Appropriations and Government Oversight committees, in an interview Friday. "We think it's some kind of cover-up."

The Republicans, meanwhile, argue that the problem originated with Democratic Gov. John Baldacci's administration, not LePage's. Hence, they suggest, at least some of the blame for the current crisis lies with the Democrats.

Rep. Les Fossel, R-Alna, sits with Craven on the Government Oversight Committee, which determines OPEGA's workload. Before anyone starts charging "cover-up," Fossel said in a separate interview, OPEGA should first find out exactly what happened.

"Around here, what often happens is people draw conclusions and then they assemble the evidence underneath it," Fossel said. "I find that obnoxious."

That said, Fossel is well aware of the OPEGA investigation's potential as a game changer in the looming legislative election -- his reason for arguing that the final report should come "after the June primaries and long before November."

If he were a Democratic challenger, Fossel said, "there are many (districts) in which I would not run against the individual (GOP) candidate. I would run against Gov. LePage. So you have to be careful of that."


"If we allow (the Government Oversight Committee and OPEGA) to be used to advance anybody's political cause, then it's almost certainly going to be less useful in the future," Fossel said.

It's a good point -- although you can already smell politics in last week's unanimous vote by the 12-member Government Oversight Committee.

Had he not supported this investigation, Fossel noted, "it puts me in the position of saying, 'Well, I'm trying to cover up what's going on in Gov. LePage's administration.' "

"And I can't do that," he continued. "They have to defend themselves. I can defend them when they're not being legitimately targeted -- but if the target is legitimate, I have to have it go forward."

Which brings us back to Ashcroft and an OPEGA staff already up to its neck in a review of Child Development Services, a Department of Corrections cost-per-prisoner analysis, two investigations of the Maine State Housing Authority, and assessment of the state's Office of Information Technology ...

"We really try to stay grounded in our process so that whatever we're reviewing, we know that it's the objective view of it," Ashcroft said. "And then what gets done with it from there, we really can't control."

Maybe that's why OPEGA's modest office sits not inside the State House, but on the bottom floor of the adjacent Cross State Office Building.

It's the closest they can get to a political fallout shelter.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: bnemitz@mainetoday.com


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