May 27, 2012

Bill Nemitz: Think tank, government proud to buddy up

It wasn’t the best of weeks for the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

Thursday evening, the left-leaning group Maine’s Majority released a plethora of emails – all the fruits of a months-long freedom of access effort – showing just how chummy the Maine Heritage Policy Center is with the Republican establishment now running our state government.

My favorite: An exchange between state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and Peter Anastos, chairman of the Maine State Housing Authority, involving an op-ed piece Anastos planned to submit to Maine’s newspapers. Before doing so, Poliquin advises, Anastos should first “run it by Lance” – a buddy-to-buddy reference to Lance Dutson, the policy center’s chief executive officer.

Then on Friday, the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, released its long-awaited “rapid response” report on alleged skulduggery at the Maine State Housing Authority.

The investigation, spawned largely by the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s crusade against recently departed housing authority Director Dale McCormick, found “no indications of fraud” by McCormick or any other staff member.

What’s more, while OPEGA did find some expenditures it considered unnecessary and a few accounting procedures that needed tweaking, the watchdog agency declared the $4.3 million in housing authority expenditures it examined “to be generally consistent with its mission and primary activities.”

Little wonder what reigned only a few months ago as the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s cause celebre has now been reduced to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it afterthought.

A full news cycle after the rest of Maine’s media ran detailed accounts of the OPEGA findings, The Maine Wire, the policy center’s “news service,” could only bring itself to report, “This is still a developing story.”

All of which makes this a particularly relevant time to revisit a question that has hung over the Maine Heritage Policy Center since its then-CEO, Tarren Bragdon, stepped in to run the transition team for newly elected Gov. Paul LePage back in 2010: What do we call this nonprofit organization that, month after month, exerts so much influence over Maine’s elected and appointed officials?

A successful political advocacy group? No doubt.

A rallying point for Maine’s conservative base? That too.

But those labels no longer do the policy center justice. Last week’s developments show once and for all exactly what this onetime “think tank” has become since its corporate-driven constituency took over the State House:

Goodbye, private, nonprofit organization. Hello, wholly owned government subsidiary.

“I would love to think that I pull the strings and run the government,” policy center CEO Dutson mused in an interview Friday. “But frankly I’m Peter Principled out of that capacity.”

Hey, at least the guy’s being honest. But Dutson is also right – far from running our increasingly dysfunctional state government, the Maine Heritage Policy Center now exists, first and foremost, to enable it.

Consider this email last January from Poliquin, a member of the housing authority’s board, to Dutson, who had just obtained a leaked copy of a report on a series of failed housing-unit inspections:

Poliquin: “Can yu give us exec summary or even bullet points after reading. Most important is pinning msha down on knowing for 2 years and not fixing. And other ways to demonstrate incompetence. Thx.”

Dutson, who dutifully attached a one-paragraph summary:  “Will do. Here’s a teaser: ...”

Then there’s this exchange around the same time between Dutson and housing authority Chairman Anastos about an impending release of information by McCormick:

Dutson: “Is there going to be a friday afternoon document dump?”

Anastos: “I don’t know. I suppose I could have called her back before 5 (she called about 4:30). Just didn’t want to.”

(Continued on page 2)

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