Friday, May 24, 2013
AUGUSTA — The good news for the Maine Green Energy Alliance is that after a two-plus-hour grilling Thursday before the Legislature's Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, no one has yet stepped forward and flat-out accused the fast-fading organization of doing anything illegal.
The bad news is that the fun, at least for the Republicans who now control the State House, has just begun.
"It's just one of those situations where I think there was a certain level of naivete," said Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, a committee co-chair, after the lengthy session. "And also experienced people that should have known better than to have a situation that appears to be somewhat tainted."
Translation: Perception, at least in politics, sometimes trumps reality. And the alliance, a heavily Democratic operation that blossomed and quickly wilted in the political tsunami that swept across Maine last fall, has a whopper of a perception problem on its hands.
The story, first reported last month by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, is fast becoming a textbook example of how to look bad while presumably doing good.
Founded by Tom Federle, a former legal counsel to Gov. John Baldacci, the Maine Green Energy Alliance received $1.1 million in August from the federal Department of Energy to schedule energy audits for homeowners in eight target communities around Maine and then help those homeowners complete energy-conservation retrofits on their dwellings.
Under the supervision of Executive Director Seth Murray, the alliance didn't exactly hit the ground running.
By the time it folded last month and agreed to hand the $500,000 (give or take) left in its coffers to the Efficiency Maine Trust -- which oversees home weatherization efforts statewide and served as the conduit for the alliance's federal grant -- the alliance had tallied 200 energy audits and only 50 retrofits.
In other words, it wasn't even close to its stated goal of 1,000 retrofits in its first year.
During the same six-month period, the alliance's staff of process facilitators, field organizers and community outreach organizers had grown to 13 people. Of the $355,836 the organization spent through the end of 2010, nearly half went to salaries.
Which brings us back to that perception problem.
As reported by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, seven of those staff members had "strong connections" to the Democratic Party. And four of those Democrats, including three incumbents, were running for the Legislature last fall, at the same time they were working for the taxpayer-funded alliance.
Let the supercharged speculation begin.
"My biggest concern is that they used taxpayer money to do politicking," said Charles Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, in a hallway conversation outside Thursday's legislative committee meeting.
And how might Webster define "politicking?"
"Going door to door, and paying people to do it, in districts where (Republicans) believe we could have won seats," Webster replied. "And they spent taxpayers' money to prop up their incumbents."
Now bear in mind there's not a shred of evidence to support that claim. No testimony from homeowners that they were victims of political arm-twisting, no tell-tale political fliers tucked inside alliance brochures, no nothing.
Nor could Webster back up two other salvos he's fired in recent days -- both aimed squarely at the notion that this is a full-blown scandal in the making.
The first involves House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, who had the alliance do an audit on her home last fall -- and paid for it in full. That didn't stop Webster, in a press release Tuesday, from calling for the Attorney General's Office to look into what "looks like a slush fund for Democrats."
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