The state’s attorney general demanded Wednesday that the LePage administration publicly release a $925,000, taxpayer-funded study of Maine’s Medicaid program.
Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, said the administration, which has acknowledged that it received the study on Dec. 16, is violating the state’s Freedom of Access Act by not making the document public.
Media outlets, including the Portland Press Herald, have requested copies of the study by the Alexander Group through the right-to-know law. Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, told reporters in late December that he had seen the study and would release it on Jan. 6.
On Monday, Jan. 6, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services said the study would not be released that day. The administration has not given a reason for withholding it, as the Freedom of Access Act requires.
“I must respectfully join the chorus of voices demanding the immediate release of the so-called Alexander report,” Mills wrote in a letter Wednesday to the administration. “I understand that release of this document was first requested in early December when the contract first was publicized. Mr. Alexander was required to file a report with the state December 1st. Reportedly your office received this report on December 16. Twenty-two days have passed since that time.”
In response, LePage said reporters could tell Mills “to sue me,” The Associated Press reported.
Mills cited news reports in which the administration said the report is complex and requires review by state officials before being made public.
“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,” Mills wrote.
The Freedom of Access Act says a court “may award reasonable attorney’s fees and litigation expenses” to a plaintiff in a right-to-know case that can show “the refusal or illegal action was committed in bad faith.”
Mills concluded, “As the chief law enforcement officer for the state and as a chief advisor on Freedom of Access issues, I must insist that you release this report to all who request it immediately.”
Tim Feeley, a spokesman for Mills, said her letter was prompted by a complaint filed by the Sun Journal of Lewiston with the attorney general’s public access ombudsman. Asked if Mills is prepared to take additional action, Feeley said the letter “spoke for itself” and the attorney general assumes “that the governor will make public records public.”
REPORT RESULTS, RELEASE DELAYED
Page 11 of the contract that the state signed with the Alexander Group says that documents turned over to the DHHS by the Alexander Group are public and subject to the Freedom of Access Act.
The Medicaid feasibility portion of the study, the first installment, was due Dec. 1 but the Alexander Group missed that deadline, which administration officials subsequently described as a “target date.”
The DHHS had reserved the State House Welcome Center for a media event to be held Tuesday, presumably for the presentation of the study. But on Monday, the event was rescheduled for Friday. Then it disappeared from the State House calendar.
Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s press secretary, said Monday that there is a new location for the presentation. She wouldn’t identify the location or confirm that the event will be a presentation of the study. Asked when the study will be released, she said “soon.”
The administration has rejected numerous media inquiries and Freedom of Access Act requests, even though the law prohibits any public body from withholding public documents without citing a specific exemption in Maine law, which the administration has not done.
Bennett said Wednesday that the governor first received the study Friday from the DHHS. Bennett said the governor knows there is a lot of “media scrutiny” of the study and he wants to fully understand its contents so he can answer reporters’ questions.
GROUP’S LEADER IS CONTROVERSIAL
Meanwhile, critics continue to cast doubt on the administration’s motives for hiring the Alexander Group, led by Gary Alexander, a former human services commissioner in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
Alexander’s work has been praised by conservatives who have called for a reduction in Medicaid rolls and a crackdown on fraud.
But on Monday, Eugene DePasquale, the auditor general of Pennsylvania, submitted an opinion column to the Press Herald urging Mainers to be wary of Alexander’s reform proposals.
DePasquale, a Democrat elected by Pennsylvania voters, described an audit that his office did on a contract Alexander signed while he was the state’s public welfare director. DePasquale said the contract, to pay home care workers, was mismanaged and late payments ultimately cost taxpayers $7 million.
“The last thing I need is to be involved in Maine politics,” DePasquale told the Press Herald in December. “But I do think that Gary Alexander has made some significant mistakes and I want to make sure that there’s appropriate accountability.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Alexander’s Medicaid cuts prompted a review by the Obama administration after 130,000 people, including 89,000 children, lost health care coverage.
Alexander also came under fire for issues unrelated to welfare reform, including instituting a dress code for female employees that prohibited open-toe shoes and required tights or panty hose. He also was criticized for keeping his home in Rhode Island while working in Pennsylvania, for billing the state for travel expenses and for starting a real estate company while still working for the welfare department.
COMMON GOAL TO TARGET FRAUD
Earlier this year, Arkansas hired Alexander’s firm for $220,000 to do a four-month review of its welfare system, according to news reports. The report, completed in July, recommended changes that included stronger fraud detection through all public assistance programs.
Such recommendations appear to align with the LePage administration’s policy initiatives, particularly for welfare fraud.
On Tuesday, LePage broadened his welfare fraud initiative by releasing data on electronic benefit transfer card transactions in Maine. In a media statement, he highlighted about 3,700 EBT charges made at smoke shops, bars and liquor stores, saying they are evidence of fraud and abuse.
But the extent of misuse is unclear, because the administration does not know what was purchased with the cards and because many of the businesses where the transactions occurred have ATMs that card holders can use to get cash.
Democratic lawmakers have described Alexander’s hiring as a move by LePage to validate controversial policy initiatives. Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said in December that Alexander is a LePage “crony.”
LePage responded by saying that he wasn’t involved in the hiring process. Documents later obtained by the Press Herald and the Sun Journal showed that LePage’s senior staff approved the contract and agreed to give Alexander a $179,000 increase over the original agreed price.
The majority of the contract is paid for from the state’s general fund, and $193,680 is federal money. Nearly $70,000 was diverted from savings that the administration found in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:[email protected]Twitter: @stevemistler