The Maine Heritage Policy Center on Tuesday released a list of vendors its says Maine State Housing Authority has paid over the past 13 years.
Included in that 536-page list: a massage therapist, three martial arts centers, an Augusta dance club, the Theater at Monmouth, various social and political organizations and 240 hotels, inns and resorts — enough to put up employees 1 1/2 times every month since 1998.
The conservative think tank calls those expenditures and others "disturbing."
"Taxpayer dollars should go toward fulfilling the mission, and for Maine State Housing that is providing low-cost, affordable housing," said Sam Adolphsen, director of the Center for Open Government for the Maine Heritage Policy Center. "So if they're giving money to groups that aren't directly interested in that — for instance, a global warming group out of the Netherlands — we don't see that has any connection to Maine Housing's mission. That sets off some warning bells."
Maine State Housing Authority spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte defended the expenditures and said any implication of wrongdoing was the center's interpretation of the vendor list.
"We take our job seriously," Turcotte said. "It requires training. It requires education and workshops that need to be attended to so that we can fulfill our mission. We take our mission very seriously, and we are going to continue providing our mission every day."
The Maine State Housing Authority is a quasi-governmental agency that gets its funding from bonds, mortgage interest, the federal government and, to a lesser extent, state government, among others. It has 140 employees and serves 90,000 clients per year.
It was unclear how much money the Maine State Housing Authority spent on each vendor, when it spent that money or why. The information it supplied to the Maine Heritage Policy Center — which recently obtained the list as part of a Freedom of Access Act request it made in June — contained only the names and addresses of vendors. Turcotte said the housing authority was working to get additional information, but it could not provide everything the center wanted.
"They wanted to have the name of the vendor, the date, the transaction, the amount, purpose, all of that. Our system wasn't set up that way," Turcotte said.
The policy center paid the housing authority $800 for compiling the list, which includes more than 6,000 vendors. Some names and addresses were deleted by the housing authority because, Turcotte said, they contained confidential information, such as a Social Security number or bank account number.
In a story posted on the policy center's website TheMaineWire.com, Adolphsen acknowledged the list had thousands of vendors that were in keeping with the Maine Housing Authority's mission, including landlords and contractors.
But he was concerned about the hundreds of others that seemed out of place. Among them:
* About 240 hotels, inns and resorts, including Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, a Disney property in Florida and the Wyndham Miami Beach Resort.
* Recreational activities, including the Theater at Monmouth, Funtown/Splashtown in Saco, Riverback Dance Club in Augusta, United Martial Arts Academies in Augusta and Healing Hands Therapeutic Massage in Belgrade.
* Social, political, and lobbying organizations, including the Maine Center for Economic Policy and Moose Ridge Associates in Augusta, which the policy center says is owned by the former partner of Maine State Housing Authority Director Dale McCormick.
* Out-of-state organizations, including the New Iowans Program in Iowa.
Turcotte could immediately explain the expenses behind some of those vendors Tuesday, but not others.
She said the hotel rooms were required because employees attend conferences, workshops and training, including annual training in Miami held by the company that provides Maine State Housing's specialized computer system.
Turcotte could not explain the Theater at Monmouth or the United Martial Arts Academies because those expenditures, she said, occurred in 1998 and 2002, respectively, and the housing authority no longer had the invoices.
She said the housing authority bought Funtown/Spashtown tickets at the corporate rate and sold them to employees. She said the housing authority had rented a hall from the Riverback Dance Club for an all-staff presentation. Healing Hands was hired to provide 10-minute neck massages to employees during a similar all-staff day, she said.
Turcotte said the housing authority gave the Maine Economic Policy Center $500 for "miscellaneous conferences and dues." She said the housing authority's human resources department — not McCormick — brought in Moose Ridge Associates. Although the company's website bills it as "one of the foremost advocacy and lobbying firms in Augusta," Turcotte said owner Betsy Sweet was brought in to work with employees on interpersonal and relationship skills.
Turcotte said the housing authority paid The New Iowans Program $183 in 2002 for "admin education and training." Although the policy center speculated the expenditure had something to do with McCormick's ties to Iowa, Turcotte said the expense occurred two years before McCormick was tapped to lead the housing authority.
Turcotte pointed out the housing authority has a superb credit rating and is audited eight times a year by various groups, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Treasury and an outside third party that looks at the books twice a year.
Despite those audits, the Maine State Housing Authority has come under fire in recent months, most notably for shoddy housing and cost overruns on housing projects. Last fall, Republicans on the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee initiated an investigation into the organization.
State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, a Maine State Housing Authority board member and a Republican who has proven fiercely loyal to Republican Gov. Paul LePage, has been particularly vocal about problems at the housing authority. Some say Poliquin's questions and the Maine Heritage Policy Center's report Tuesday are politically motivated.
McCormick is a former Democratic legislator who was reappointed to MaineHousing by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci early in 2010.
Although LePage has not hesitated to show Baldacci's appointees the door, his power to expel McCormick is statutorily limited. To be removed, she must commit fraud, steal or demonstrate fiscal malfeasance.
The Maine Heritage Policy Center has been deeply involved in the LePage administration.
State Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, a member of the Government Oversight Committee, said Tuesday that she believes McCormick is being targeted.
"In my personal opinion, the governor, as well as the treasurer, wants to undermine Dale McCormick because she's a woman, as well as a Democrat," she said. "I believe they're going to try to smear her in any way they can, whether they can prove it or not."
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett bristled at Craven's assertion that his administration is targeting McCormick.
"For Sen. Craven to accuse the governor of undermining McCormick because she is a woman and a Democrat is laughable," Bennett said in an email. "The governor has never expressed malcontent toward Dale McCormick. Rather, the governor and his staff have worked with her in recent weeks, most recently to develop a LIHEAP contingency plan, and the governor will continue to work with the agency."
She said the Maine Heritage Policy Center's report "exemplifies the need for oversight" of the quasi-state agency.
"Ultimately, the governor believes if taxpayer dollars are being used, some sort of oversight is warranted," Bennett said. "The governor is supportive of creating improved accountability within MSHA and the administration will work toward a resolve to address this issue."
Some of the Maine State Housing Authority vendors The Maine Heritage Policy Center has questioned:
* Whitehall Inn – Camden, Maine
* Inn at Mill Falls – Meredith, N.H.
* Wyndham Miami Beach Resort – Miami Beach, Fla.
* Caribe Royal – Orlando, Fla.
* Opryland Hotel Convention Center – Nashville, Tenn.
* Chelsey Savoy (Hotel) – New York, N.Y.
* Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City Hotel – Arlington, Va.
* Flamingo Hilton – Las Vegas, Nev.
* Caesars Palace – Las Vegas, Nev.
* Maine Center for Economic Policy
* Pushard's Okinawan Karate
* United Martial Arts Academies
* Funtown/ Splashtown USA
* Augusta Taekwondo Center
* Riverback Dance Club
* New Hampshire Society of CPAs
* The Theatre at Monmouth – Monmouth
* Abracadabra Productions – Westbrook
* Climate Focus BV – The Netherlands
* Sierra Club Foundation – Portland
* Chiro-Works LLC, Chiropractic — Freeport
* Disney Destinations LLC – Lake Buena Vista, Fla.