August 12, 2011

'Sting' video stirs fraud debate

Conservative groups say the recording points to 'vulnerabilities' in Maine's DHHS system.

By Rebekah Metzler rmetzler@mainetoday.com
MaineToday Media State House Writer

AUGUSTA - Two conservative Maine groups released a secretly recorded video Thursday that they say exposes "vulnerabilities" in Maine's Department of Health and Human Services.

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Screen capture from video of a Department of Health and Human Services worker talking with "Ted Ceanneidigh," not shown, a man trying to receive Medicaid benefits while broadly hinting that he is a drug smuggler.

Paul LePage, Mary Mayhew
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Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and Gov. Paul LePage, speaking Thursday in Augusta, said a video secretly recorded at the Biddeford DHHS office did not reveal any fraud. They said better staff training is needed, however.

The Associated Press/Pat Wellenbach

In the video, released by Americans for Prosperity and the Maine Heritage Policy Center, an actor visits a DHHS office in Biddeford. The man, calling himself "Ted Ceanneidigh," tries to receive Medicaid benefits while broadly hinting that he is a drug smuggler. However, the man did not receive benefits.

The video was sent to Carol Weston, state director of Americans for Prosperity in Maine, by James O'Keefe, who calls himself a citizen journalist. His Project Veritas effort has generated controversy and criticism nationally for using heavily edited video clips to expose illegal activities or liberal media bias. His past targets have included ACORN and Planned Parenthood.

Gov. Paul LePage, who campaigned for office in part on a pledge to reduce welfare fraud, said Thursday that he thinks the video, which reportedly was shot in February, shows the worker was inexperienced and inadequately trained. But he emphasized no fraud occurred.

"We need to be far more professional and we have to provide better training and I take complete responsibility for that," said LePage, who briefed reporters along with DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew. "That is my job to make sure that happens."

But he added, "I do not believe for a second that the individual involved was willfully allowing abuse of the welfare system."

The shorter, edited version of the video shown at a news conference Thursday focuses on the response of the DHHS worker, identified only as Diane. The clip shows her saying the applicant can report that he has no income because he has no paychecks -- despite the fact that he tells her he runs a cash business. He also tells her he owns a Corvette and shows her a photo of what he says is his boat, The Bob Marley.

Weston said the actor eventually left the state office with a form to apply for MaineCare benefits.

"This video reveals explosive evidence of the potential for fraud within Maine's Medicaid system," Weston said. "It replaces what have been unverifiable anecdotes of welfare system fraud and abuse with a concrete example of unethical and potentially illegal behavior within Maine's welfare bureaucracy."

The actor never returned the application for processing. In an interview, O'Keefe said his group felt it would be committing fraud to do so.

But in a 49-minute version of the video that Americans for Prosperity also released, the worker also repeatedly tells the actor, who speaks with an Irish accent, that she cannot help him fill out his application until he presents photo identification, a passport or naturalization papers. She also repeatedly tries to get him to apply for insurance through Dirigo Health, which offers subsidized insurance but would require him to pay a premium.

The DHHS worker also consults her supervisor, who questions the applicant and tells him that he is being evasive.

O'Keefe said the Maine video is part of a wider effort by him and his backers to expose Medicaid fraud across the country.

He said Maine was selected because its laws allow people to be videotaped without their knowledge if one person -- in this case, the person doing the taping -- is aware of it.

"So far in all the videos we've done -- it's not just Maine -- we have seen instances where people don't do the right thing. I don't believe that's the individual employee, I think that's the system that cultivates this type of behavior," he said, citing examples in Ohio, Virginia and South Carolina.

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