AUGUSTA — James “Jimmy” Cook, the former UPS truck driver and Teamster organizer with friends in high places at the State House, got more than well-paying jobs from his political contacts.
He also walked away from his job in the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development owing the state more than $5,000 in unpaid charge-card bills.
The state issues travel credit cards to employees with the agreement that the employee will pay the credit card bill after the state reimburses the employee for authorized travel, in Cook’s case to places as distant as Long Beach, Calif., and New York City.
The state reimbursed Cook for the travel with checks totaling more than $5,000, but Cook didn’t pay the credit card balances. The state is the guarantor of the credit card, so it was stuck paying off the credit-card company.
Cook has not responded to the center’s efforts to contact him, either for this or a previous story.
The state has made calls and sent at least one letter to Cook in attempts to recover the loss, but despite Cook’s promises to pay off the debt in regular payments, as of just 10 days ago, he had paid only $200 in the 20 months he has owed the money.
A second $200 check showed up at the state controller’s office on March 30 this year — the day after the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting had called Cook to ask him about how he came to hold three professional-level state jobs in 2007-08 with no college degree and a background as a Teamster organizer and truck driver.
Those jobs paid Cook a total of $142,000 in salary and benefits. One of the jobs was in the tourism section of the Department of Economic and Community Development, which included out-of-state trips in 2008. Cook’s “transaction detail” statement to the state shows, for example, costs as low as $7.22 at Papa Gino’s in Charlton, Mass., and as much as $299 at Blue Fin, a restaurant in New York’s Times Square.
The day after Cook made the $200 payment, the center’s story documented how Cook came to hold the well-paying positions in the administration of Gov. John Baldacci.
In that story, the governor said he had known Cook — both are from Bangor — for many years through his labor activities. Baldacci also said he supported Cook’s hiring in January 2007 at the state Department of Economic and Community Development.
At that agency, Cook worked under then-Commissioner John Richardson. Cook’s activities included being a liaison between Richardson and organized labor, which has been a key supporter of Richardson’s current campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Late last week and early this week, the center began asking state officials, including the governor and Richardson, about Cook’s outstanding debt and what was being done to collect it.
On Wednesday, Ryan Low, the state commissioner of administration and financial services, said Cook had made an $802 payment “just this morning. I would say that’s progress … I’m sure your article helped a little.”
A rare case
A review of the written record of Cook’s debts, including interdepartmental e-mails and interviews with current and past state officials, demonstrates that Cook appeared immune to even high-level demands that he pay the state back. Not even a stern letter from then-state controller Edward Karass induced Cook to pay, nor could the Attorney General’s Office.
It also reveals that it is rare for an employee to stiff the state for travel bills. State controller Terry Brann could recall only two cases in his 12 years in the department: Cook’s and a woman who left her state job when her husband died, moved out of state and still owes about $3,000.
Brann said in all other cases where there is an outstanding debt, “We make a call and it’s usually resolved quickly.”
In Cook’s case, by the time the credit-card company had given up pursuing him and turned the matter over to the state, Cook had left his job. That gave the state less leverage to compel payment. The state was able to recover $186 toward the debt from Cook’s unused vacation time, and then nothing until two weeks ago except the $200 check last December.
The record shows months of back-and-forth discussion between agencies about the debt, including possible legal action.
No legal action
The Attorney General’s Office has a collection office that could have taken on the case on behalf of the controller’s office, but AG spokeswoman Kate Simmons said that office only gave advice to the controller. Because the case was never “officially referred to us” by the controller, no legal action was taken.
However, Karass, who was the state controller when Cook incurred the debt, said he had referred it to the AG’s office.
David Farmer, Baldacci’s deputy chief of staff, told the center in an e-mail, “It is the governor’s understanding that this collection matter is being handled like similar cases. The controller has been working with the Office of the Attorney General to retrieve the outstanding balance.”
Farmer said the governor exerted no pressure on state agencies to go easy on Cook.
Former Economic and Community Development Commissioner Richardson said, “I was not aware of Jim’s debt until after his departure from DECD. The process and management of credit cards and collections is performed by (the Department of Administrative and Financial Services), not DECD. Since I had no knowledge of Jim’s debt, I did not ask how it was being pursued or that it shouldn’t be pursued.”
The e-mails that bounced around between state finance officials show their increasing frustration with their attempts to reach Cook and collect the money.
Brann, the controller, wrote in a Feb. 26, 2010, e-mail to other state officials, “To be honest, (Cook) has avoided every from of communication we have sent him from our office.”
Brann said legal action could have cost more than the state might have recovered from Cook.
But, he added, there had been a price beyond the $5,000: “Our trust has been violated. We definitely don’t appreciate that.”
The Maine Center for Public Interest reporting in a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism organization. The e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. The Web site is pinetreewatchdog.org.