LEWISTON — Gov. Paul LePage said he hoped the problems around a controversial welfare study his administration commissioned on a $925,200 no-bid contract could be used as an “education moment,” during a visit to Lewiston on Thursday.

LePage was visiting the Androscoggin Business to Business Trade Show at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee when he told reporters that Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew was in talks with Gary Alexander, president and CEO of the Alexander Group, the company hired by the state to produce the study.

The company was hired to analyze Maine’s public welfare and health care benefit programs and make detailed suggestions that would help save the state money.

LePage in May suspended payments to the company after Alexander acknowledged portions of the five-part study he delivered to the state contained plagiarized information. The state has paid just over $500,000 for the work, and LePage earlier said the state may seek a refund.

He said Thursday that Mayhew and Alexander were in talks and those talks were progressing. LePage said he met with Mayhew last week and gave her guidelines on negotiating with Alexander but didn’t detail them.

“They have been talking, and I understand that their talks are going well,” LePage said. “If they go well, fine; I won’t have to interfere. If they don’t, then I will have to interfere.”

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LePage said he had discussed having a meeting with Alexander but decided against it. He also noted that he didn’t sign the contract for the welfare study, although his office did sign off on it.

He wanted to use the problems with the contract as an “education moment,” saying DHHS officials and others in his administration did not heed his advice on that contract and others that have been problematic.

“I do believe that we need to be a little bit tougher and use a little bit more foresight when we sign contracts,” LePage said. “I’m trying to work with those who negotiate contracts. Instead of (me) just saying, ‘You have to,’ I’m trying to get them to understand the rationale and how it works.”

LePage said the state should be making those who are awarded contracts for the state make deposits to protect the state’s interests and cover its legal costs should something go wrong with the contract.

LePage said he ultimately took responsibility for the flawed study and any other problem contracts negotiated by his administration.

“It’s always the governor’s fault,” LePage said. “He’s the only guy who’s elected statewide and I take responsibility.”

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Also at the trade show was state Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston. Craven has been an outspoken critic of the Alexander Group contract and among a group of Democrats who passed a bill that would have canceled the contract.

LePage vetoed the legislation, saying it was an unconstitutional power grab by the Legislature of the executive branch’s authority to negotiate contracts for the state.

Craven said the study had lost all credibility and was essentially worthless to the state. 

“(Alexander’s) report is of no value to us,” Craven said.

She said the information that was plagiarized from other reports would have already been available to the state. She said other portions of the study turned in by Alexander’s company were fraught with errors, although the Alexander Group has disputed that.

“Even the Republicans weren’t using it for anything, because they knew very well that it was invalid, that it wasn’t any good,” Craven said.

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Democratic leaders in Augusta said LePage agreed to meet with them about the report, but he has yet to do so.

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, issued statements on the report Thursday, challenging LePage to get the state’s money back.

Eves said LePage got the state into the contract and it was up to him to get the money back. He noted that some of the money to pay the Alexander Group came from federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds.

“Let’s be clear,” Alfond said. “This is not an educational moment. It is a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

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