Our View: LePage won’t let public see costly report

AUGUSTA — In a letter to Republican Gov. Paul LePage, the state’s top law enforcement officer demanded he follow the law and release copies of a publicly funded study of the state’s welfare system.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills on Wednesday sent LePage a terse letter regarding the administration’s refusal to release copies of the document.

But, during a news conference Wednesday afternoon, when LePage was asked about Mills’ letter, he instructed the press to “tell her to sue me.”

The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment in response.

The $925,200 no-bid contract authorized by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services contains specific language that the administration must release any copies of the so-called Alexander report it has, under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

DHHS officials and communications staff in LePage’s office have said the administration is withholding parts of the report delivered to the state on Dec. 16 to review and analyze them. The administration says it wants to read and understand what it calls a “complex” report before being questioned about its contents.

Mills’ letter is clear that the administration’s reason for withholding the report is not authorized under Maine law.

In an interview with a group of State House reporters Wednesday, LePage was defiant. He told reporters they’d see the report when he was ready.

“It’s right here,” he said, picking up a stack of papers from his desk. “I’m reading it. And when I’m done, you’ll get it. I have not completed reading it, but I am reading it and will be done shortly.”

The Sun Journal was excluded from that news conference. 

The Rhode Island-based Alexander Group was contracted to examine Maine’s welfare system, including the possible impact of Medicaid expansion, and was directed to issue the first part of its review — a Medicaid expansion feasibility study — on Dec. 1. It was delivered Dec. 16.

In her letter, which was also sent to DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, Mills noted that 22 days have passed since the report — which its contract defines as a public record — has been delivered. And, “while public statements indicate that the delay is due to your need to review, analyze and finalize the report, such a rationale for delay does not exist in statute,” she wrote.

Mills further noted that “reliance on such troublesome criteria could result in a court finding that you have acted in bad faith in resisting disclosure, with the attendant legal consequences of such a finding.

“As chief law enforcement officer for the State of Maine and chief adviser on Freedom of Access issues, I must insist you release this report to all who request it immediately,” Mills wrote.

On Nov. 29, the Sun Journal filed an advance FOAA request seeking access to the Alexander Report that was due to be filed with the state on Dec. 1. DHHS denied access to the report on Dec. 2, saying it would have to review the report internally before releasing it publicly.

On Dec. 9, DHHS reiterated its denial and denied the Sun Journal’s request again on Dec. 20.

The Sun Journal, which had been told the report would be made available Jan. 6, reiterated its FOAA request for the report Wednesday afternoon. 

Information in the report is likely to form some basis for the governor’s position on a proposal before the Legislature to expand MaineCare, the state’s insurance program for low-income and disabled people. The governor strongly opposes an expansion.

According to LePage’s early read of the report, the governor said the document shows MaineCare expansion would be too heavy a cost for Maine to bear.

Expansion, a key provision of President Barack Obama’s landmark health care reform law, would provide taxpayer-funded health care to 70,000 additional Mainers. It would be paid for in large part by the federal government, and is a top priority for Democrats this year. The effort was defeated by gubernatorial veto in 2013.

“Everything in there is going to vindicate my position on not expanding,” LePage said. “It clearly tells us that it’s going to cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade.”

In response to repeated requests for access to the report, the Sun Journal and other media have been told to file civil lawsuits for FOAA access and that the administration will release the records before any case can be adjudicated.

On Tuesday, Suzanne Goucher, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and a member of the Legislature’s Right to Know Advisory Committee, said LePage is flouting Maine’s public-access law by withholding the report.

“This is a report that was paid for with a lot of public money and one that should have been released to the press as soon as it got into the hands of state government,” she said. “Clearly, this goes against a promise by Gov. LePage that he made when he first came into office that his would be the most transparent administration in state history.”

Gary Alexander, whose consulting firm was contracted to study Maine’s welfare system, is a former public welfare chief in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. In 2010, he turned down the position of DHHS commissioner in Maine because it didn’t pay enough.

Democrats in Maine and Pennsylvania have criticized Alexander for his track record in Pennsylvania, where thousands were cut from welfare rolls under his tenure. In Maine, democratic lawmakers have accused LePage of “cronyism” in hiring the Alexander Group.

LePage has repeatedly defended the contract, calling the Alexander Group the best welfare-consulting firm in the country, pointing to Alexander’s work in Rhode Island, where he won a global Medicaid waiver from the federal government, giving that state unique flexibility in administering its publicly funded health coverage.

And, he said, while Democrats might not like that Alexander is a hand-picked consultant, “I’ll tell you this: Whenever you hire a consultant, you have your choice of who to pick.”

Both Democratic and Republican state lawmakers said Wednesday they were “disappointed” LePage would not release the documents as required by state law.

Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, said he understood that if the document is still in draft form,  the governor may want to review it first. But Saviello also acknowledged that state law does not allow LePage to withhold the document for that reason.

“He should just follow the law and release the report,” Saviello said. “Just release the report. I asked yesterday in our own caucus when we were going to have the report, and we were told only that it was coming.”

Other Republicans, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear the governor would retaliate, said LePage should want to put the report in the hands of the public, especially if he believes it will vindicate his position on MaineCare expansion.

Democrats were more strident in their criticism and noted they had concerns about the funding sources, including some federal funding for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, that was used to pay for the document.

“This is using public taxpayer dollars, TANF block grant and MaineCare general funds and that they think they shouldn’t have to give that report to the public, the taxpayers of Maine, is just beyond anything I can articulate at all,” said state Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston. “He’s told so many lies by now you can’t even trust him when he says anything, anyways.”

State Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, called on LePage to follow the same laws all Mainers are required to follow.

“The law is the law and he should follow it just like any other Maine citizen,” Alfond said.

LePage’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, said the governor was not breaking the law and intended to release the document to the public “after he’s finished reading it.”

She accused Democrats of politicizing the report.

“Let’s end the attacks, allow the report to be studied, results released, and then we can discuss the merits of what can be done to make Maine services better and reduce costs for taxpayers,”  Bennett said.

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Mario Moretto of the Bangor Daily News contributed to this report.

Candidates for Maine governor’s office say LePage should release report

AUGUSTA — The two top candidates seeking to replace Republican

expressed dismay and concern Wednesday over LePage’s refusal to release a study on Maine’s welfare programs that is being paid for with taxpayer dollars.

Democratic candidate Mike Michaud said LePage’s refusal to follow the advice of Maine Attorney General Janet Mills would serve to only deepen the mistrust citizens have in government.

“We need to restore the voters’ faith and trust in government again and the only way to do that is to ensure it’s open, transparent and accountable to the people,” said Michaud, Maine’s 2nd District representative to the U.S. House. “The taxpayers of Maine have funded this report. He should release it.” 

A spokeswoman for independent candidate Eliot Cutler said the LePage administration essentially botched the entire process.

“There is a right way to handle contracts and a wrong way,” said Crystal Canney. “This contract should have gone through a competitive bidding process. The governor should make the report public, as the taxpayers are paying for it — or stop spending our money for partisan political purposes.”

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