An undercover video crew came to Maine hoping to trick an unsuspecting mark into saying something stupid on camera. Fortunately, Gov. LePage wasn’t biting.

In fact, the governor showed great restraint in his response to citizen-agitator James O’Keefe, who was selling a heavily edited video that purported to show a state employee coaching an unseen MaineCare applicant, who was giving off multiple clues that he might be a deep-pocketed drug dealer.

The governor, who has been accused of speaking before he thinks in the past, got things in the right order this time. LePage said that the video showed that front-line DHHS workers could use more training (who can’t?) but made clear that the video did not reveal any fraud. LePage repeated his campaign pledge to reduce waste in the welfare system, but added “I do not believe for a second that the individual involved was willfully allowing abuse of the welfare program.”

Unfortunately, two conservative activist groups were not as savvy.

The Maine chapter of Americans for Prosperity and the Maine Heritage Policy Center were apparently taken in and endorsed the video as proof of fraud, or “potential fraud,” even though the make-believe welfare cheat didn’t leave the office with anything other than an application.

“This video reveals explosive evidence of the potential for fraud within Maine’s Medicaid system,” said Carol Weston, state director of Americans for Prosperity. “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.”

Lance Dutson of the Maine Heritage Policy Center was equally duped, saying the video exposed Maine as “exceedingly vulnerable” to fraud even though the attempted fraud was a failure. Weston and Dutson are more gullible than the state worker in the video if that’s what they think the video shows. A more accurate lesson that could be drawn is that if you subject an ordinary person to an outlandish situation they might not know how to react right away. This should sound familiar — it was the idea behind the old TV show “Candid Camera.”

No welfare system, including Maine’s, is immune to fraud, and our state has uncovered instances of cheating in the past. The governor is right in wanting employees to be better prepared to deal with potential cheaters, but we would hope that the increased training will be geared more toward real-world threats to the integrity of the system than toward camera-wielding hucksters looking to capture headlines.

The welfare issue LePage campaigned on is much different. He has argued that benefits are too easy to get and too hard to get off of, creating a culture of dependency that interferes with people’s ability to take care of themselves. Others argue that the safety net is necessary to protect the most vulnerable members of society from the shocks of a volatile economy.

That is a conversation worth having, and it should be based on real information about who gets state benefits and why they need them. That would require some digging, but not the kind done by pranksters with hidden cameras and funny accents.

In the meantime, Gov. LePage was smart enough not to tie the credibility of his argument to this immature stunt. Too bad everyone wasn’t wise enough to stay out of the “Candid Camera” trap.


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