AUGUSTA – The state watchdog office will do a “risk assessment” of Maine’s housing authority in the coming months in response to a directive by the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee.

The committee voted 7-3 Tuesday, with three Democrats in opposition, to direct the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to review all operations of MaineHousing.

The committee also added the state Office of Information Technology to the list of agencies to be reviewed, said Beth Ashcroft, executive director of the program evaluation office.

Ashcroft said she was given no specifics about MaineHousing, nor was she given a list of concerns about the agency.

“It’s more in the arena of a large agency, quasi-independent, that doesn’t get the same level of scrutiny as other state agencies,” she said.

She described it as a “risk assessment” that will look at MaineHousing’s operations, programs and finances. The review, and the review of the Office of Information Technology, will likely not begin in earnest until after Jan. 1, Ashcroft said.

Before it gets to those reviews, the office must finish an investigation of the Department of Education’s Child Development Services program and an analysis of how much the state spends per prisoner, she said.

Dale McCormick, executive director of MaineHousing, said her agency gets several federal reviews each year and has an internal auditor who reports to the MaineHousing Board of Commissioners each year. She said she is ready for the program evaluation review.

“I welcome it,” she said. “I think the more people know about what we do, the prouder they will be of what we do.”

MaineHousing has an annual operating budget of about $13 million and 143 employees. It gets $380,000 a year in state general fund money and a portion of the real estate transfer tax, in addition to millions of federal dollars. It acts as a bank for affordable housing, as a public housing authority that manages 800 properties, and as an administrator for 35 programs, McCormick said.

“We’re responding constantly to scrutiny,” she said, noting that her agency has a room set aside for the various auditors who visit each year.

MaineHousing is one of several quasi-state agencies that will likely be reviewed eventually by the program evaluation office, said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, a member of the Government Oversight Committee.

After an extensive review of the Maine Turnpike Authority showed early this year that toll money was spent on lavish dinners and international trips by Executive Director Paul Violette and other officials, the committee identified “a whole pool of agencies we should probably look at,” Diamond said.

But during Tuesday’s meeting, he heard no specific complaints or concerns about MaineHousing, which led him to vote against the motion to put the agency on the list of reviews.

“It just seemed odd to me,” he said. “It was pulled out of the blue and put on the work agenda. There should be a reason for this.

“What was the reason for fishing this out of the middle?”

MaineHousing has been challenged in recent months by the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, which held a press conference in July to complain that the agency was overcharging for public records that had to be compiled in response to a Freedom of Access Act request.

This month, the agency released salary data to the Maine Heritage Policy Center in response to a revised request for information.

Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, another committee member, described Tuesday’s vote as a directive for a preliminary review because MaineHousing handles a lot of money.

Earlier this year, Republicans identified the housing authority as a top priority for examination, but Democrats put it much lower on their list, he said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]