Trying to make sense of the on-again, off-again real estate deal between the state and Maine State Prison Warden Patricia Barnhart?

I refer you to The Captain, that snarling, steely-eyed prison-camp warden in the 1967 movie classic “Cool Hand Luke.”

After angrily knocking a ne’er-do-well Paul Newman headlong into a ditch for running off at the mouth, The Captain looks out uneasily at the rest of the squirming prisoners and proclaims in his whiny Southern drawl, “What we got here is … failure to communicate!”

Now nobody’s saying Barnhart, who has earned high marks for her on-the-job performance since she took over the state prison in Warren in 2009, is in any way comparable to The Captain. He was, as Newman’s Luke Jackson observed, “one rough old boy.”

Still, the mess in which Barnhart and a bevy of state officials now find themselves shows what can happen when the zeal for a deal drowns out a precious few moments of rational, common-sense communication.

Consider what happened before Attorney General William Schneider wisely stepped in Monday and pulled the plug on the whole fiasco:

In September, Barnhart approached the state with a novel idea for the state-owned property on Ship Street Circle in Thomaston that includes the house in which she and her partner lived for free, two other residential buildings and about five surrounding acres.

Rather than put it all on the open market as the Legislature had ordered in 2009 to raise some much-needed revenue, Barnhart proposed, why not just sell it to her?

Because, for starters, such a transaction would be illegal under a Maine law that prohibits state officials from having any direct or indirect interest in “any contracts made in behalf of the State.”

But nobody communicated that.

It was just the beginning.

When the sale closed just over a month ago, Barnhart and her partner, Sheehan Gallagher, secured the entire property, valued by the town only a few months ago at $458,000, for the low, low price of $175,000.

The state’s Bureau of General Services handled the negotiations and all of the paperwork. But Barnhart’s higher-ups in the Department of Corrections, all newcomers in the administration of Gov. Paul LePage, say they knew nothing about the sale until after it was consummated because, well, nobody communicated it to them.

Then there was the side arrangement whereby Barnhart would lease one of the houses back to the state for $1 a year to house prison-guard trainees. In exchange for Barnhart’s generosity, the state would continue to send over prisoners to mow the warden’s lawn, shovel the warden’s snow and haul away the warden’s trash – all at zero cost to the warden.

Turns out that, too, was news to the Department of Corrections. Again, the communication thing.

Finally, on June 15, a mere six days after Barnhart and Gallagher became the property’s owners, they filed a request with the town to subdivide the entire parcel into seven lots.

And that, at long last, is when this too-good-to-be-true deal finally started getting communicated – not by Barnhart and Gallagher, not by anyone in state government, but by Daniel Dunkle, a reporter for the weekly Herald Gazette in Rockland who caught wind of the subdivision proposal during his weekly rounds at Thomaston Town Hall and, bless him, starting digging.

Funny thing about Dunkle’s reporting, which included a Freedom of Access request that netted 347 pages of documents relating to the sale: It now has all kinds of people communicating.

People like David Martucci, Thomaston’s tax assessor, who inspected the property in January at Barnhart’s request because, he recalled in an interview Tuesday, she wanted to know what her property tax bill would look like. But that’s not all Barnhart was curious about.

“At the time, she had a lot of questions about how many subdivision lots could be made out of that property,” Martucci said. “I kept telling her to go see the code officer.”

People like Bill Bird, a local businessman and dabbler in real estate who heard that the state was looking to sell the Ship Street Circle property, which fronts the St. George River and once abutted the now-demolished state prison in Thomaston.

Bird said he called CBRE/The Boulos Co., the agent hired by the state to market the property (which it never actually did), to ask about the particulars.

“It kind of irritated me,” Bird recalled Tuesday. “They wouldn’t give me any information on the listing. They wouldn’t give me any asking price, they wouldn’t give me the appraisal. The answer I kept getting was, ‘We’re not at liberty to give you that information.’ “

Come again? The real estate agent hired by the state to market a piece of state-owned property isn’t “at liberty” to give out the asking price?

“That’s what kind of got my attention,” replied Bird. “I said, ‘You know, this just isn’t right.’ “

Back in Augusta, meanwhile, they’ll be communicating about the now-defunct deal for weeks if not months to come.

Attorney General Schneider, in addition to declaring the sale null and void, has suggested that the parties and their attorneys come up post haste with “a process for unwinding this matter.”

Betty Lamoreau, who took over as acting director of the Bureau of General Services in March after eight years as the state’s purchasing director, now concedes it simply didn’t occur to her that the law barring state officials from entering into contracts with the state might apply to the sale of state property.

“It was a mistake,” said Lamoreau in an interview. “That was on me.”

The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee is still expected to meet this month to review the results of an ongoing investigation of the whole affair by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

“There are a number of us who still have questions about how this all happened in the first place,” noted Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the committee’s co-chair.

Gov. LePage, to his credit, has ordered all sales of state property halted until the Department of Administrative and Financial Services comes up with a policy that will “prevent similar situations from occurring in the future.”

That leaves Warden Barnhart, who has been accused of no wrongdoing but clearly still has some explaining to do.

For starters, exactly where was she headed with this thing? Did she truly see Ship Street Circle as her long-term future abode, or was it a financial springboard to something bigger and better?

And as good a deal as she got with the free yardwork and all, did she ever stop to think how just plain bad it might look having guys in prison jumpsuits toiling outside the warden’s privately owned home?

Hard to say. A woman who answered Barnhart’s office phone Tuesday said the warden has no plans to comment publicly on the matter.

Which leaves us, dadgummit, right back where we started.

A failure to communicate.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]

 


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