Gov. Paul LePage's remarks about the video and potential welfare fraud in Maine.
AUGUSTA — In a dramatic press event designed to show that the state's welfare system is vulnerable to fraud, two conservative policy groups unveiled a 45-minute secretly taped video of an interaction between a Department of Health and Human Services worker and a dubious applicant seeking MaineCare.
The video, released by Americans for Prosperity and the Maine Heritage Policy Center, shows the DHHS worker trying to help a man with increasingly questionable qualifications obtain benefits.
The man, using an alias, was working under the direction of James O'Keefe, a conservative activist who has led similar undercover stings in attempts to show fraud and malfeasance within welfare agencies, ACORN and Planned Parenthood.
O'Keefe has also hosted a seminar for Americans for Prosperity's RightOnline, a group designed to equip conservative activists with new media tools. His videos have been featured on other AFP state chapter sites, including Ohio's.
AFP and Maine Heritage Policy Center representatives said they had no financial arrangement with O'Keefe.
O'Keefe, responding by email, said he was not compensated, and never has been, by AFP.
The dubious MaineCare applicant did not obtain benefits. While the interaction went on for about 45 minutes, he was ultimately sent away after the initial DHHS caseworker was assisted by a senior eligibility specialist. The specialist told the man that his answers were evasive.
O'Keefe's agent shot the secret video in February. According to Carol Weston, who heads the Maine chapter of AFP, O'Keefe gave the video to her organization last week.
AFP and the policy center showed reporters a 2-minute clip of the video and provided the full-length version on a website. The 2-minute version does not show the caseworker later returning with the senior eligibility specialist.
It's unclear why O'Keefe didn't reveal the video for six months, a move that irked Gov. Paul LePage. Had the video been provided earlier, LePage said, he could have quickly implemented departmental changes to prevent a similar situation.
The conservative groups promoted the video as "explosive evidence" of Maine's vulnerability to welfare fraud.
"Maine taxpayers deserve better than this," Weston said. "They deserve peace of mind that their tax dollars are funding a safety net only for the truly needy, not people who game the system."
Weston and Lance Dutson, the CEO of the policy center, questioned how much of the welfare system's growth in enrollment was attributed to fraud.
LePage, in a press conference that immediately followed the groups' event, said he was troubled by the video. However, the governor focused less on the issue of the system's vulnerability to fraud and more on the DHHS employee's lack of training.
LePage, who took responsibility for the department's lack of "customer service," stressed that the DHHS employee was relatively new to the job. He praised the senior eligibility specialist in the video for asking "the right questions" and turning the man away.
LePage said the frontline DHHS worker should have quickly disqualified the man rather than wasting time before seeking advice.
DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew stressed that the video did not result in fraud and that the employee did the right thing by consulting with a senior employee.
"It's a 2-minute video out of a 45-minute interview," Mayhew said. "There are positives that we also need to focus on. ... We need people to feel comfortable (contacting a supervisor). This individual did."
The 2-minute version shows the man, posing as Ted Ceanneidigh, telling the DHHS worker that he drives a Corvette and has enough money to buy private health insurance. He strongly hints that he is also a drug dealer, provides a business card emblazoned with a marijuana leaf and notes that he deals in metals because it's less traceable.
The worker, who state officials have declined to identify, asks for proof of income to determine whether he qualifies for benefits. The man says he runs strictly a cash business.
"If you don't have proof of income, then you have no income," the worker says.
The policy center and AFP focused on that caseworker's response. Dutson said it showed the worker "assisting in a potentially fraudulent gaming of the system."
Dutson and Weston said the video spoke for itself. Asked why O'Keefe didn't provide the video directly to the administration, Weston said it may have been because O'Keefe knew the conservative groups had championed welfare reform in the past.
On his website, Project Veritas, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, O'Keefe wrote that his work "does not advocate specific resolutions to the issues that are raised through its investigations, nor do we encourage others to do so."
LePage wondered why O'Keefe sat on the video for six months.
"If they had called me back then, believe me, it would have been spread very quickly around the state," he said. "As a matter of fact, I think the video is a great training tool for employees of what not to do."
Democrats and other groups blasted the video, calling it deceptive and divisive. Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, called it a "sting operation without the sting."
"This is a radical group pitting Mainer against Mainer and spreading distrust of government and hatred of public servants," said Alfond, who commended LePage and the administration's measured response.
The Maine video was part of a series conducted by O'Keefe. His Project Veritas shows several other videos attempting to investigate Medicaid fraud.
While O'Keefe's work has been championed by conservative groups, he has also been accused of altering his videos to show a predetermined outcome.
In March, The Blaze, a conservative publication, conducted a thorough analysis of O'Keefe's videos and found differences between edited versions and rough cuts.
The story said O'Keefe deployed "questionable" editing practices to produce a sound bite that would resonate in the media. A subsequent New York Times Magazine piece, written by the author of a recent Rush Limbaugh biography, and a fan of the talk show host, said the edited videos "don't seem out of context."
For example, O'Keefe's famous pimp suit shown in the edited version of his ACORN video in 2009 was not actually worn during the infamous interview.
In another example, the edited video of O'Keefe's meeting with National Public Radio executives in March showed NPR's Ron Schiller blasting conservatives, but the uncut version revealed that O'Keefe left out Schiller's favorable comments about the GOP, including that he hailed from a conservative family and that he was a fiscal conservative. Schiller resigned over the video.
Steve Myers, managing editor of Poynter.org, a website for the Poynter Institute journalism school, recently noted that O'Keefe understands the influence of the soundbite. Myers noted that O'Keefe's edited NPR video has been viewed more than 21 million times, while the full version has about 21,000 views.
MHPC bundled the two-minute version with the longer one on its website. The two-minute version appears first.
Although Weston, with AFP, said O'Keefe presented them with the video last week, O'Keefe said he did not edit the two-minute version.
He said he only posted the full video on his website Thursday morning.
O'Keefe has gotten in legal trouble over his political efforts. He and three others were arrested in 2010 when they entered the New Orleans office of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., disguised as telephone workers, in an alleged attempt to tamper with the senator's phones. They were initially arrested on felony charges, but the charges were reduced to entering a federal building under false pretenses — a misdemeanor — and O'Keefe pleaded guilty.
Editor's note: The edited version of the video, unveiled Thursday by Americans for Prosperity and the Maine Heritage Policy Center, is the first clip. The complete interview with the caseworker is the video underneath it, and shows that the undercover man was denied welfare benefits after the caseworker asked a senior manager for assistance.