Wednesday, December 4, 2013
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THOMASTON - Gov. Paul LePage suspended sales of state property Monday in response to a finding by Attorney General William Schneider that the sale of three state-owned houses in Thomaston to the warden of the Maine State Prison violated state law.
The state sold these three houses and 5.2 acres of land for $175,000 – $283,000 less than the assessed value – to the Maine State Prison warden without marketing the property. The attorney general ruled that the deal violated state law.
Tom Bell/MaineToday Media State House Writer
LePage said the suspension will give the state time to develop policies for selling surplus property, conduct an Attorney General's Office review of any pending sales, and allow a real estate professional to certify that any currently proposed sale price is "commercially reasonable."
The sale this spring of the property in Thomaston to Warden Patricia Barnhart is void because it violated a law that prohibits state officials from having financial interest in any contracts made on behalf of the state, Schneider said in a letter sent Friday to Barnhart and Sawin Millett Jr., commissioner of the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services.
"We suggest that the parties and their counsel meet as soon as possible to discuss the process for unwinding this matter," Schneider wrote.
The state sold the houses and 5.2 acres for $175,000 -- which was $283,000 less than the assessed value -- without ever marketing the property.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who co-chairs the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee, said Monday that the governor's order will help to establish public confidence in the way the state sells surplus property.
Nevertheless, he said, the committee may still want to proceed with its plan, announced last week, to investigate the sale to Barnhart.
"There are a number of us who still have questions about how this all happened in the first place," Katz said.
Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, who co-chairs the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which oversees the state prison, said he wants the Government Oversight Committee to pursue its investigation.
"I am not looking for someone to be punished," he said, "but it's important to lay out the details so we understand how it did happen so (that) going forward, everybody understands what needs to be done."
LePage said in a prepared statement that he was informed about the sale last week and had no prior knowledge of it.
The real estate transaction began in September, under the Baldacci administration, and was concluded in June through the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.
On May 9, Millett signed the deed over to Barnhart and her partner, Sheehan Gallagher. A month later, the state and the buyers reached an agreement for one of the houses to be leased to the state for $1 a year for four years, so the state could keep using the building to house trainee corrections officers. The state agreed to provide lawn care services for the entire property for the duration of the lease.
On June 15, Barnhart asked the Thomaston Planning Board for a meeting to discuss a proposal to subdivide the 5.2-acre parcel into seven lots. The meeting, which was scheduled for tonight, has been postponed, town officials said.
Barnhart was not at work Monday and could not be reached for comment. Mark Barbour, the planning consultant in Rockland who has been working on the subdivision project, said he's waiting to hear from Barnhart to learn how to proceed.
Barnhart has lived in one of the three houses since the state hired her from Michigan in 2009 to run the state prison in nearby Warren. When she was hired, she was told that the state planned to sell the house, said Betty Lamoreau, acting director of the state's Bureau of General Services.
Although the Department of Corrections, by custom, had allowed wardens to live in the house, the state had no contractual obligation to provide Barnhart with housing, Lamoreau said.
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