The energy group with strong ties to the Democratic party that won — and then forfeited — a $1.1 million stimulus grant spent $6,000 for a database from a technology company devoted to promoting Democratic candidates and causes.
Maine Green Energy Alliance used the database to canvass homeowners it was trying to persuade to sign up for energy audits last summer and fall. The group was unable to sign up the number of homeowners it promised in its contract with the state and returned the unspent portion of the grant, estimated at $600,000.
The database expense was revealed in documents submitted to the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology. News stories by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting led members of the committee to question alliance founder Tom Federle and Executive Director Seth Murray last month. At the end of that session, lawmakers demanded copies of the organization’s records, which were turned over last Friday.
The center reported that Democratic Gov. John Baldacci intervened to help Federle’s group get the U.S. Department of Energy grant through the Efficiency Maine Trust, a quasi-state agency. Federle was Baldacci’s former in-house counsel.
The center also reported that seven of the 13 staff members at the Alliance had strong connections to the Democratic Party, including being members of the Legislature.
Murray said Tuesday that he knew the database, called the VAN system — for Voter Activation Network — was “a tool used in political campaigns.”
“I knew that the Democrats used it," he said. "I don’t know if the Republicans used it. I knew that progressive organizations used it.” But Murray said he chose the system, which cost the alliance $6,000, because it was an efficient tool for reaching citizens.
“It is a contact-management system for managing outreach campaigns,” he said, and the alliance needed a system to organize a canvass conducted on its behalf in 2010 by the nonprofit Opportunity Maine.
Among the records provided to the Legislature by the Maine Green Energy Alliance is a report by Opportunity Maine staffer Nicole Brown about the canvassing effort she supervised under a contract with the alliance. The purpose of the canvass was to convince homeowners to sign up for energy audits: canvassers would visit homes, talk to residents about the benefits of energy efficiency and then turn over homeowner names to the alliance for follow-up.
Brown’s report is critical of the alliance’s part of the effort:
"Throughout this short canvassing project, MGEA changed course on locations and start dates five times. This made the task of recruiting canvassers for various regions of the state challenging and time-consuming for the Canvass Director. Each time locations changed, Opportunity Maine had to create new job postings to recruit and interview people for new places.”
In a four-week period, Brown wrote, “MGEA changed course on the script three times."
Murray said Brown’s criticism was “valid.”
“I think that both parties would say that the start of the canvass didn’t go well,” he said.
The website for NGP VAN, the Massachusetts company that produces and sells the database, declares that it is “a customer-focused, technology solutions organization that is determined to help Democrats and their allies succeed.”
NGP VAN counts among its clients the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Governors Association, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, and almost all of the Democratic State Parties.
Stu Trevelyan, CEO of NGP VAN, said his group works “only with candidates who are Democratic or progressive, and not Republicans.” They will sell their database to nonpartisan nonprofits, citing environmental groups as one example, but not if they are actually “Republican front groups.”
Among NGP VAN’s employees is Torvic Vardemis, a Democratic House candidate in Maine in 2008 who also worked for the state Democratic Party and as regional field director at the Democratic National Committee. Vardemis conducted a telephone training session for the Maine Green Energy Alliance after it bought the VAN system.
“It’s not surprising to me that they would pick an organization that prides itself on electing progressives and Democrats and (that) was their source of a data list,” said Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, co-chairman of the Legislature's Utilities and Energy Committee.
Thibodeau said his initial review of the alliance records raised “more questions regarding the extent of the partisan nature of the publicly financed Maine Green Energy Alliance.”
Thibodeau cited an email that details a meeting held by alliance director Murray and a potential staff member at the Maine Democratic Party headquarters in June as another source of concern.
“It just seems odd that they’re so comfortable meeting at a partisan campaign headquarters,” Thibodeau said.
But Murray rejected any suggestions that his organization conducted partisan work.
“It’s not the case,” he said. “We were focused on energy efficiency, period. Any conclusion that we were doing anything for partisanship reasons is false and the documents should bear that out.”
Thibodeau said that after consulting with committee members, he plans to call Murray and Federle back for further questioning.
The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service based in Hallowell. Web: pinetreewatchsig.org. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.