Energy program shut down after questions raised about politics, effectiveness

A program funded through a no-bid, $3 million government grant and run until recently by a politically connected Hallowell lawyer to market home energy retrofits abruptly shut down its operation late Friday night.

An investigation by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting into Maine Green Energy Alliance's operation and performance has revealed that Efficiency Maine was asked by a top aide to former Gov. John Baldacci to include a funding request by the alliance in a larger grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Energy, despite misgivings by some agency officials.

During the grant process, the Sierra Club questioned MGEA's inclusion in the master grant and, according to an Efficiency Maine e-mail, MGEA set aside $250,000 in its first-year budget to make community donations to quiet objections.

MGEA founder Thomas Federle, a former counsel to Baldacci, said politics and influence played no part in his organization being included in the state’s grant and subsequently getting the award.

The Center found that, almost seven months into its first year of the grant, MGEA had signed up only 50 households for energy retrofits, but had promised in its contract to have 1,000 signed up in 12 months.

Interviewed on Thursday about the Center’s findings, Adam Lee, the board chairman of Efficiency Maine, said, “We are looking very, very carefully at what they’re doing because we have a fiscal responsibility to make sure the money is being spent efficiently.”

That same day — and just a few days before the next meeting of the board — the Alliance board killed the project.

MGEA had received $1.25 million of its $3 million grant, and an estimated $356,000 has been spent on retrofitting projects since the grant award. MGEA has agreed to return unspent funds to the state to be used for rebates to Maine homeowners who are retrofitting their homes through a program run directly by Efficiency Maine. The money is expected to fund more than 1,000 home energy savings programs, Efficiency Maine Executive Director Michael Stoddard said.

Governor’s staffer intervenes

Federle worked as chief legal counsel for Baldacci from June 2005 to December 2006. In late summer 2009, Federle was asked to work with a task force formed by Baldacci to forge a solution to the longstanding conflict over a trash incinerator in Biddeford, owned by Casella Waste Systems.

Federle said he was asked to handle regulatory and financing issues to upgrade the incinerator to provide low-cost heat and power to consumers; construct a recycling facility in Westbrook; and offer weatherization services to local residents.

A “huge challenge,” Federle said, was “how are we going to pay for all of this?”

Enter the federal government.

In September 2009, U. S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced a $454 million stimulus program called "Retrofit Ramp-Up," that Chu said would “open new energy efficiency opportunities to whole neighborhoods, towns, and, eventually, entire states."

“When I read it, I couldn’t believe it," Federle said. "It looked like it was written for this task force."

But there was heavy competition for the federal money: The state also planned to apply for the grant to make loans for residential upgrades.

In mid-November, Federle contacted John Brautigam, director of the energy programs at the state Public Utilities Commission about having the task force's Biddeford proposal adopted into the state’s application already in progress.

Brautigam wasn’t convinced. The next day, he wrote an e-mail to Maine State Housing Agency head Dale McCormick:

“I am not seeing how their overall project fits with this,” Brautigam wrote, “but I see some connection with their idea of residential neighborhoods.”

Federle said the state “didn’t want a competing application.” He said he told state officials, “We have no intention of standing down.”

The Department of Energy’s proposal deadline was Dec. 14. Over the next several weeks, staff at various state agencies debated the merits of including the Biddeford proposal versus the strength of one unified proposal.

Ian Burnes, a PUC program manager, reviewed Federle’s proposal and wrote in a Dec. 7 e-mail to state officials that “it seems too late to consider” the Westbrook recycling facility work “as part of our grant.” Burnes had written in an earlier e-mail to Brautigam that the Westbrook facility “will eat the entire grant.”

Nevertheless and despite these objections, when the $75 million state grant proposal was sent off Dec. 14 to the Department of Energy, it included $6.6 million for MGEA.

Karin Tilberg, a staff member in Gov. John Baldacci’s office, had intervened.

In a Dec. 11 e-mail from  Brautigam to the Public Utilities Commissioners — Jack Cashman, Sharon Reishus and Vendean Vafiades (all Baldacci appointees) — Brautigam wrote:

“Yesterday we received a specific request from the Governor to find a way to include the Biddeford/MERC task force package in the proposal. …Last night and this morning we have adjusted the $75 million proposal to include a sub-grant of $6.6 million to support the work recommend (sic) by the task force. We have been working closely with Tom Federle on this. … Although it strays a bit from the core mission of building retrofits, I think this sub-grant will be fairly considered by the DOE.”

Tilberg said last week that she didn’t have a precise memory of the conversation.

“In any message I made, any communication I had with Mr. Brautigam, it’s standard practice to make sure that the person understood that it would need to, that they could use their discretion and judgment that there was merit and justification for including it,” Tilberg said.

Brautigam says he had already warmed to the idea of including the Alliance proposal, and “the governor’s request was certainly something we took very seriously. Obviously, when you work for state government, when the governor says you need to do something, you pay attention.”

Federle then wrote the text for the governor’s letter of support for the entire state proposal, which was reviewed  and approved by Tilberg.  

The letter heaped praise on the Alliance portion of the proposal, even though it represented less than 10 percent of the amount requested.

There was only one problem: In January, the Biddeford incinerator project included in the grant proposal fell apart.

‘Greenwashing’

“The whole thing blew up,” said Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, who was a task force member. Biddeford Mayor Joanne Twomey had pulled out of the project, saying the entire plan was “putting lipstick on a pig,” and accusing the Alliance of "greenwashing" what was essentially a project to get Casella stimulus money for its troublesome incinerator.
 
In late February, Sue Inches of the State Planning Office wrote Brautigam that she was getting questions about the grant. “I understand ... the Green Energy Alliance piece is falling apart and will be withdrawn from our proposal. … We should touch base about this.”

Brautigam shot back an e-mail saying, “Please do refer people to me and I will handle it. And please don’t tell people that the MGEA proposal has fallen apart and will be withdrawn. Who told you that?”

In April the feds announced Maine had been awarded $30 million of the $75 million it requested. The feds had included MGEA in the grant.

Brautigam left his state job in early March, when the program he ran was officially reincarnated as “The Efficiency Maine Trust” and Portland attorney Michael Stoddard was hired to run it. So it was Stoddard’s job to figure out what to do about the Alliance part of the grant.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do. Staff at Efficiency Maine had largely concluded that Federle and the Alliance had no concrete plan.

“Do they think they’re just free to design any program they want in 4 towns that they pick?” wrote Stoddard in a May 16 e-mail to Efficiency Maine staffer Andrew Meyer. “(A) Would that be a good thing? (B) Is that what we said in the proposal to DOE?”

Meyer responded, “I didn’t get the impression that they had a plan with players, roles, action items, or budget.”

Stoddard, in turn, got tough with Federle in a subsequent e-mail:

“What I am concerned about, generally, is that beyond the basic concept of working closely with towns/communities, you guys are making this up as you go along. ... And meanwhile, I immediately have to submit a revised proposal and budgets to reflect what you are going to do with a $3 million, no-bid sub-grant.”

Despite his reservations, Stoddard kept Federle and the Alliance in the grant, cutting their take down to $3 million from the original $6.6 million.

The plan was that the Alliance would complement Efficiency Maine’s loan program by working with towns — Buckfield, Scarborough, Old Town, Hampden, Belfast, Yarmouth, Cumberland and Topsham — to get them to adopt the ordinances to participate in the program and by convincing homeowners to do upgrades.

But documents show that Stoddard still had some problems to deal with.

One was that members of his staff and the public were beginning to question why the Alliance was getting so much money to do work that the agency itself was already doing, as were other groups, including an effort by environmental and religious groups called “Green Sneakers.”

‘Awkward appearances’

In a presentation to staff, Meyer questioned MGEA's qualifications, stressed the “awkward appearances” of hiring "Gov. Baldacci’s former counsel” and argued that the agency’s outreach money could be more effectively spent through a competitive bidding process.

Ann Goggins, chairwoman of Falmouth’s energy commission, said she told Stoddard she felt the Alliance was diverting money that should be spent on winterizing homes.

“The MGEA didn’t seem to fill an essential role in getting it there," Goggins said. "It looked like it was an entity in search of money.”

Stoddard’s solution, written in an e-mail to staffers Meyer and Elizabeth Crabtree, was to have the Alliance pay off critics like the Sierra Club: “Confidentially, we’ve gotten them to put about $250K into their Year 1 budget which they will use for sub-granting to community organizing/outreach program. This should take Opportunity Maine and Sierra Club off our backs ...”

Stoddard then asked the Efficiency Maine Trust board — all Baldacci appointees — to authorize the no-bid contract with the Alliance.  The board insisted that the Alliance be given a one-year, $1.25 million contract, with an option for the other two years and an additional $2 million, rather than being paid the entire $3 million at the start.

It’s that contract that the Alliance will now abandon.

Is Lee concerned that it appears that political favoritism may have pushed the state to use taxpayers’ money unwisely?

Lee says that while he doesn’t believe politics was behind the state’s grant to Federle and the Maine Green Energy Alliance, “I think the way politics works often doesn’t look good from the outside.”

Baldacci left office on Jan. 4 and has not established a public office and does not have a published number. Attempts to reach him through the state Democratic Party and his former spokesman and others were not successful.

Editor's note: According to a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, the organization did not receive any money from the Maine Green Energy Alliance.

Naomi Schalit is executive director and senior reporter for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism organization based in Hallowell. Email: mainecenter@gmail.com. Web: pinetreewatchdog.org.

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Comments

 's picture

Wow, Ms Shalit is an

Wow, Ms Shalit is an incredibly talented writer. That being said, did someone make her angry? The beginning of the letter is good, the body is quite nebulous, the ending infers conclusions bordering on libel. I wonder about this. But, she's a great writer. Did someone she supports get turned down in favor of MGEA? Our federal gov
t offered this money, borrowed, to make homes more efficient. Which is a great idea but impractical in the short term. So, moneys were headed this way. But the money was sent BEFORE infrastructure was in place to administer or disburse it. Which is the equivalent to "ready, Fire, Aim." So, we have very respected people appointed to this task to cobble something together to make it work. No matter what they do, in this maelstrom of organizing, will appear dastardly if e-mails, meetings, are cherry picked for the inference of corruption. I am surprised they expose themselves to this. But, out of a committed community spirit they do.
There were FAR better ways to reduce oil consumption than what was proposed and funded. Regardless, it seems something ticked Naomi off. She IS a talented writer.

Frank Heller's picture

ENVIRO-POLITICAL CRONYISM....why am I not surprised?

This is exactly how government works in Maine at its highest levels:

o High government officials leave office then conspire to 'bend' the grant rules to cover their client's projects;

o People object, and they 'spread' a bit of the money around to 'green' groups , green sneakers indeed, to gain favorable support and letters of endorsement;

o Maine Green Energy Alliance appears to be riddled with corruption;

o And the MERC problem continues.

 's picture

So

Exactly how much money is left from the original $1.25M contract? And, how was the original money spent? I think I am reading the article correctly that this contract was only for the original $1.25M. If it is more, then I want an explanation for all of the money given to this organization. And, I will reiterate, that what I find unsightly and unacceptable is the fact that the Governor's office used it power to influence the PUC and other agencies of state government.

Frank Heller's picture

Bending/ignoring grant application rules by Maine agencies

Have you forgotten how Portland misused the MIGRANT EDUCATION MONEY and was caught in a GAO audit and forced to return the money? It was a major national scandal, yet was hushed up by the Portland Press Herald.

One has to wonder,given the amount of Federal money spent by state and local government, with the help of political cronies of the DEM regime; how much of it was illegally spent and should result in returns and possible criminal indictments?

 's picture

1.) voter 2.) tax payer 3.) receptor 4.) rate payer

changes of charter need votes. Most of the landowners in Maine reside out of state. Cannot vote.
Ah, landowners are taxpayers and cummulitively their voices can be heard? Written down. Start an association.
Receptors. I do not know webster's definition but any one affected by noise, vibrations, visuals of a neighbor is a receptor.
Receptors count with state agencies.
Each letter from each receptor can be counted as a vote. Enough votes (complaints) (note! only receptors can write)
Pay for registered letter of a receptor vote. Fires and all happen to collected letters.

Okay, rate payer......along as you need delivered services; you pay.

Write to LURC , DEP; state where you are a receptor. public park, seasonal home, private home. tell them why your view, silence or feelings will be affected by neighbors actions.

Help the administration know what gets impacted by others actions.

Adam Lee's picture

Article rushed into print,...

This is a good article, however the headline gives the reader a false impression. The headline should have been:

Article Rushed Into Print When MGEA decided to wind down.

Tom Federle and the staff at MGEA have been absolute professionals making every effort to optimize the Federal dollars they were granted. When it was apparent that the results were not what they had hoped for and the Efficiency Maine Trust was having incredible success with their home weatherization program Mr. Federle and the staff and board at MGEA agreed it would be best to discontinue the program and shift the funds back to the Efficiency Maine Trust. These decisions were made based on the data that MGEA collected not the threat of a newspaper article.

Our role in overseeing their program has been ongoing and did not start as a result of
Naomi Schalit's article as her research and quoted emails will indicate.

Adam D. Lee
Chairman The Efficiency Maine Trust

P.S. If you like this article make a donation to the Maine Center For Public Interest Reporting,
They are equal opportunity investigators, liberal, conservative, left or right, they do not seem to play favorites.

Stephen Thomas's picture

MEGA

Ms Schalit interviewed most of the people mentioned in the article, including Mr Lee, the four days prior to MEGA suddenly announcing publicly Friday night at 10:30 pm. Just a coinsidence? Some how the original 6.6 mil destined for Casella got past the EPA screeners. PACE is entirely for residential energy improvements-not commercial. Casella is a large multi-national company and the tax payers should not be under wrighting the companys projects. I attended many Efficiency Board Trust Board meetings. One I attended in June the Board gave Mr Federle $1.25 mil with no budget.

Mark Robinson's picture

Half a story, but complete character assassination

I will not hide behind any screen name, but use my full name here in this forum to state unequivocally that this column contains, in addition to a fact sprinkled here and there, many half-truths and distortions. (All comments from the peanut gallery notwithstanding.) The performance of the Maine Green Energy Alliance, and the best way to spend federal stimulus funds to help Maine people winterize their homes, are topics worthy of close scrutiny. However, character assassination by insinuation is not. That’s my reaction to this “story.” I was an eyewitness to the beginnings of the Maine Green Energy Alliance. I and several others in the Biddeford/Saco area pressed very hard for Tom Federle to be part of Governor Baldacci’s “Task Force To Close Maine Energy.” Why did we want him on the team? Because of his expertise and impeccable reputation for honesty. That task force met on an almost weekly basis in the summer of 2009, plowing their way through grueling meetings as they tried to help Casella Waste fulfill a contract pledge to Biddeford to work “in good faith” toward finding a way to find a way to close Maine Energy, a constant source of nuisances and an obstacle to economic redevelopment in downtown Biddeford-Saco. It was hard work on hot summer evenings by many honest and dedicated people. None of that background or context made it into Schalit’s story. None. Instead, she picked up the story half way, taking fragments of an e-mail here or parts of a quote there, putting them together completely out of context. Not exhibiting the spine to make any specific allegation, she just stirred the pot to create the appearance of certain motivations; motivations that just weren’t there. And then she took credit on behalf of the “Center” for an outcome that was well under way before she stumbled onto the scene. I’m all for good investigative journalism. But Schalit’s piece wasn’t a column. It was a cartoon.

 's picture

Sorry

Sorry for the double post -- have no idea how that happened -- must have a heavy hand this morning.

 's picture

Just the beginning

This is a perfect example of what happened throughout the Baldacci administration. Favoritism was rampant in this administration -- legal or not. The PUC, which is supposed to be an independent regulatory agency, just became a partner with John Baldacci's office. The whole business with wind mill companies was handled the same way. And, I am sure that there are other things that were improperly done. It is just a matter of time before it all comes out.

 's picture

Just the beginning

This is a perfect example of what happened throughout the Baldacci administration. Favoritism was rampant in this administration -- legal or not. The PUC, which is supposed to be an independent regulatory agency, just became a partner with John Baldacci's office. The whole business with wind mill companies was handled the same way. And, I am sure that there are other things that were improperly done. It is just a matter of time before it all comes out.

 's picture

you are 100% right... the iceberg tip is now visible

but we need to beware what's not yet visible. This isn’t rocket science folks, but it’s amazing how many valid questions/concerns a random review of the facts can produce. For example, here are two reasons why Maine taxpayers deserve a Procedural Audit of state programs like Efficiency Maine. If you look at the staff list for Efficiency Maine (http://www.efficiencymaine.com/efficiency_maine_staff), you will notice that the first and last names on the list are Joy Adamson (Grants Administrator) and Tim Vrabel (Strategic Initiatives Specialist). Next, since they are public servants, their 2009 compensation packages (listed at http://www.maineopengov.org) raise some interesting questions. Remember, this example is based on a random review of strictly the first and last person listed on their staff list.

#1. Joy Adamson is listed as “Grants Administrator” on the Efficiency Maine website. However, on the state payroll website, s/he has the following two (2) listings:
a) Adamson, Joy M // Public Service Coordinator III // $55,991 (total compensation 2009);
b) Adamson, Joy M // Utility Analyst // $22,419 (total compensation 2009).
HENCE, Joy’s total compensation in 2009 between those two (2) fancy job titles/positions was $78,410 tax dollars.

#2. Tim Vrabel, is listed as “Strategic Initiatives Specialist” on the Efficiency Maine website. However, on the state payroll website, s/he has the following two (2) listings:
a) Vrabel, Timothy J // Public Service Coordinator III // $78,066 (total compensation 2009);
b) Vrabel, Timothy J // Utility Analyst // $28,498 (total compensation 2009).
HENCE, Timothy’s total compensation in 2009 between those SAME TWO (2) fancy job titles/positions as Joy Adamson was $106,563 tax dollars.

In addition, some quick and easy Google searches under a person’s name will often provide more pertinent information… as it does for both of these two people. Needless to say, I hope Ms. Schalit will continue her investigative reporting in areas like this… the political games with our tax dollars must be exposed and stopped ASAP.

 's picture

Nice job, Ms. Schalit.

Wow, a real news story! The website (http://www.mainegreenenergyalliance.org) states “Maine Green Energy Alliance, a non-profit organization funded by a sub-grant of Efficiency Maine funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.”

Hence two important questions: 1) Does this program involve more political favors from those Far-Left politicians? 2) What’s required for a person/company to become one of their so-called “certified energy auditor” that is referenced at http://www.mainegreenenergyalliance.org/how-we-help.html?

IMHO, since there seem to be several red flags waving for attention to this matter, it’s time for someone within the LePage Administration to follow-the-money by conducting a Procedural Audit at both the Maine Green Energy Alliance and Efficiency Maine. It’s time for the financial games with our tax dollars to be stopped!

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