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Maine Lawmakers Question Media Coverage of MSHA Report
06/08/2012   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Members of the Legislature's government oversight committee today formally accepted a preliminary report critical of some financial practices at the Maine State Housing Authority, but not before venting their frustrations with the state's media over coverage of the issue. Peter Anastos, the chairman of MSHA's board of commissioners, said while no fraud was uncovered at the agency formerly headed by Democratic appointee Dale McCormick, the report indicates that the authority failed to meet its core mission goals.

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The government watchdog report from the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability last month assessed financial practices at the Maine State Housing Authority under former Director Dale McCormick. it was not a broad condemnation--but it wasn't flattering either.

The report flagged some expenses that could be questioned as unnecessary. They included the use of personal credit cards for thousands of dollars that let the holders rack up personal cash bonus points or frequent flyer miles, frequent paid lunches at a downtown Augusta cafe, and professional memberships and donations to advocacy groups.

McCormick's out-of-state trips that included stops in Denmark and Japan still infuriates Peter Anastos, chair of the MSHA board of commissioners.

"The executive director traveled extensively, many section 8 tenants had to endure conditions from the department's miserably failed inspections," he said. "Those of us who volunteer our time to this agency were thrust into a situation, we felt the leadership's flawed focus, and, frankly, we thought, galavanting on the taxpayers' dollar, put the agency in the cross-hairs of HUD and OIG."

Although the OPEGA rapid response review of a small percentage of financial transactions at MSHA did raise questions over the propriety of many expense practices, it did not uncover fraud or malfeasance similar to some of the former financial dealings at the Maine Turnpike Authority.

Because of the lack of criminal charges, some news outlets touted reports that characterized the OPEGA investigation as a witch hunt that went nowhere and that there was no wrongdoing or fraud. Anastos told members of the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee that he couldn't understand it.

"When I listen to some of the testimony here at the last meeting, read a couple of editorials, it's just whatever we're doing up there is just not getting across or just isn't being understood," Anastos said.

Republican State Sen. Earl McCormick, of West Gardiner agreed. "I was a little disappointed in how this stuff got all played out in the press myself, because what would be wrong with establishing a little more oversight from the board?" he said. "I hated it being characterized as a witch hunt."

"There's no question why the press would pick up on some of these things," says Sen. Bill Diamond, of Windham. Like other Democrats, Diamond watched a concerted effort build against former MSHA director Dale McCormiick from all Republican quarters.

Gov. Paul LePage appointed a majority of new commissioners on the board who favored his demand for change at the quasi state agency. State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin focused in on McCormick, and the conservative Maine Heritiage Policy Center sought the record of previous expenses at the agency that helped trigger the OPEGA investigation.

Diamond said he was having difficulty reconciling Anatos's sensational descriptions of McCormick against the chairman's inability to understand why the media would find such remarks sensational.

"For example, you use the word 'galavanting,'" he said. "Now that would suggest that every trip she took from, you said, Japan to Denmark, was really very little purpose, or very little result. We can't say on one hand that the press is at fault here, and on the other hand make these kind of comments in testimony on the record about a person who's not here, which is highly more sensational than the initial report we got."

State Rep. David Burns, a Whiting Republican and chair of the committee, defended the way Anastos's described McCormick's travels.

State Rep. Les Fossell, an Alna Republican, warned the committee against reaching conclusions about MSHA based on press reports, saying the lawmakers need to wait until a full OPEGA report on the agency is completed at the end of the summer.


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