AUGUSTA — The conservative advocacy groups behind the secretly recorded interview at the Department of Health and Human Services on Friday defended their decision to aggressively promote the video despite criticism that it is designed to mislead the public about the occurrence of welfare fraud.
James O'Keefe, the conservative activist who dispatched an undercover actor to see if he could obtain MaineCare benefits, denied that he had been paid by either Americans for Prosperity or the Maine Heritage Policy Center.
The two organizations released the video Thursday, saying it revealed that DHHS was vulnerable to fraud.
O'Keefe has conducted similar stings in attempts to show malfeasance within welfare agencies, ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which advocated for low- and moderate-income families) and Planned Parenthood. However, his work has been assailed by critics who say O'Keefe selectively edits his videos to incite outrage and advance his agenda.
Similar controversy has struck O'Keefe's 3-minute DHHS trailer, a sensational compilation of the interview's most controversial moments that includes cut-aways showing the actor wearing an outrageous Gaelic costume. The costume was not worn during the actual interview.
The trailer also omits key events in the 49-minute DHHS interview.
The trailer shows the DHHS employee attempting to assist the actor, despite his obviously dubious qualifications for benefits. However, it does not show a senior DHHS manager questioning the man and ultimately telling him that he'll be denied MaineCare.
Americans for Prosperity and the Maine Heritage Policy Center showed the trailer during their news conference, but they did not discuss the interview outcome. However, they did provide reporters with a Web link to the full, 49-minute video.
Critics have suggested that it was no accident to promote only the trailer. Media analysts, including the conservative publication The Blaze, and the journalism center the Poynter Institute, have said O'Keefe's selective editing is designed to exploit the media soundbite and to facilitate the trailer's chances of going viral.
On Thursday, O'Keefe responded to criticism that he edits out context by citing a recent New York Times Magazine piece that highlighted the opinion of former NYT Public Editor Clark Hoyt. Hoyt had reviewed raw footage of the infamous ACORN video and wrote that the edits first presented to the public did not "seem out of context. Hoyt and the writer of the profile piece were widely criticized for their assessment.
O'Keefe's media expertise has been previously sought by AFP, which earlier this year hosted a Web seminar designed to equip conservative activists with media skills. O'Keefe told the Sun Journal that AFP did not pay him for the event or the DHHS video.
He claimed that his operations run on private donations to his nonprofit, Project Veritas. It's not clear whether AFP has donated to Project Veritas. After an initial email conversation with the Sun Journal, O'Keefe declined to answer follow-up questions.
He also dodged questions about his decision to leave out the conclusion of the DHHS interview.
He wrote that he posted the full-length video on his Project Veritas YouTube stream Thursday morning. That video, however, has a problem: The audio cuts out during the final 5 minutes, when the DHHS manager tells the actor that he'll be put on a waiting list and ultimately denied MaineCare.
The full audio is available on the MHPC website.
O'Keefe asserted that he sent AFP "the entire 49-minute video you see at our website."
Carol Weston, head of the Maine chapter of AFP, said her organization "received two separate clips" from O'Keefe last week.
"Obviously, the most important thing was the dialogue where (the DHHS worker) is accepting the fact that he's going to show that he has no income," Weston said.
She added that although the actor didn't receive MaineCare, he could conceivably have taken his paperwork to receive health care.
O'Keefe has said that the actor did not take the gambit further because he could have been prosecuted for fraud.
AFP and MHPC say it's irrelevant that the actor didn't receive MaineCare, adding that it supports myriad anecdotes that people are gaming the system. MHPC frequently cites its in-house analysis that shows enrollment in Maine's welfare system has grown 70 percent between 2003 and 2010, despite a relatively flat poverty rate.
The MHPC analysis includes recipients who may have received food stamps for a short time but are no longer supported by the system.
DHHS has estimated that between 3 and 4 percent of the system is plagued by welfare fraud. The LePage administration has vowed to stamp out wrongdoing in the system. Earlier this year, the governor created a new task force within DHHS to study ways to snuff out malfeasance among MaineCare recipients.
Last year, President Barack Obama directed federal agencies to expand auditing to recapture improper or erroneous Medicaid and Medicare payments. The administration said it could save the government as much as $2 billion over three years.
It appears O'Keefe's questionable operation — dubbed by one Democrat as a "sting without the sting" — is overshadowing the MHPC and AFP's argument: There must be greater oversight of DHHS, including so-called "secret shoppers" deployed to ensure workers aren't complicit in fraud.
LePage, at a news conference Thursday, said he was open to the idea. However, he stopped short of joining MHPC and AFP's claim that DHHS suffered from a culture of apathy.
The governor said the frontline employee was inexperienced and poorly trained. He praised the manager for asking the right questions.
"The video does not show a person willfully helping someone defraud the welfare system," LePage said. "It does show a need for further job knowledge and continuous and improved staff training."
The administration declined to discuss the fate of the frontline worker. Calls to the DHHS Biddeford office, where the video was shot, were not returned.
After initially boasting of his latest exploits on Twitter, O'Keefe has been relatively quiet. He did not respond to questions about whether he had visited other DHHS offices in Maine.
The Maine Heritage Policy Center on Friday promoted the video to supporters in a fundraising email.