Gov. Paul LePage has suspended all payments to a consultant group after revelations surfaced that the group lifted information from other sources without attribution.
According to a plagiarism expert who studied the Alexander Group’s report on Maine’s public assistance programs this week, the authors took information from as many as five other sources, without attribution or with improper citations of the original source.
The new examples, revealed Friday, come on the heels of revelations this week that the report used extended passages from a 2011 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities without proper attribution.
Asked to comment on those additional instances Friday afternoon, Gary Alexander said his agency already had conducted an internal investigation this week after the initial reports of plagiarism surfaced. He said he was aware of other “anomalies” and attributed them to one employee who has been disciplined and removed from the project.
“We are disappointed in our own efforts,” he said. “We have high standards and, in this particular case, we failed.”
LePage was not satisfied by that explanation and acted swiftly. Within an hour of being told about the allegations, the governor released a statement announcing that he was suspending payments totaling more than $400,000. He did not address the $500,000 that the Alexander Group has already been paid.
Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, said the governor takes the latest allegations seriously and plans to contact the plagiarism expert cited by the Press Herald to learn more.
Shortly after the statement came out, Bennett said in a follow-up phone call that LePage had actually suspended payments to the Alexander Group on Wednesday, after the initial plagiarism reports, even though his health and human services commissioner Mary Mayhew downplayed those allegations the same day, saying that “the media and Democrats have chosen to politicize punctuation over policy.”
Alexander did not return another call late Friday for comment on the suspension of payments.
Mike Smit, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, used plagiarism detection software and simple Google searches to identify instances where the Alexander Group copied from other documents published by Mathematic Policy Research, Pew’s Stateline news service, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Commonwealth Fund and the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.
Smit did the work at the request of Mike Tipping, communications director for the Maine People’s Alliance, who wrote about the instances in a column for Saturday’s Portland Press Herald.
“This is a level of plagiarism that is unacceptable in academia and certainly in government policy,” said Tipping. “It’s incumbent upon (Gov. Paul LePage’s) administration to cancel this contract and ask for our money back.”
Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in Florida, said he’s never heard of an instance in which a policy consultant group lifted whole chunks of information without proper attribution.
“Attribution is important for two reasons: One, it’s fair. And two, it adds validity to what you’re trying to say,” he said.
Smit, the Dalhousie professor, said that with today’s technology, it’s easier than ever to plagiarize, but it’s also easier than ever to uncover plagiarism.
“The things I caught in this report were really just the dumbest cases of copying and pasting,” he said.
LePage last fall commissioned a no-bid $925,000 contract with The Alexander Group, headed by Alexander, the former Pennsylvania secretary of public welfare, to evaluate Maine’s welfare systems and suggest improvements.
The contract has been under political fire ever since. Democrats criticized the fact that LePage handpicked, without discussion, a group with a history of promoting policies about welfare that directly align with the governor’s own conservative beliefs. They later criticized the group for missing deadlines spelled out in the contract and th assessing the cost of expanding Medicaid in Maine.
So far, four of the five commissioned reports or studies have been submitted. In April, DHHS agreed to amend the contract to give the Alexander Group an extension to submit the remaining reports. Those are now due July 15.
Alexander said six people worked on the report. He declined to identify the employee who he said was responsible for the lifted passages, which were first reported in an editorial in the Bangor Daily News.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said the state should ask for a refund.
“Maine taxpayers deserve a full refund. It’s not enough to suspend payments for this flawed and controversial contractor,” Eves said. “It’s fraudulent work. No amount fraud should be tolerated. The contract should be canceled like we have been saying since day one. This has been an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars meant only to boost the Governor’s election campaign.”
Lawmakers did attempt during the recently concluded legislative session to pass a bill that would nullify the contract. The bill passed through the Democratic-controlled House and Senate but was vetoed by LePage and failed to receive the two-thirds majority of votes needed to overturn that veto.
Alexander, in an apology sent to DHHS on Wednesday, acknowledged footnoting problems that escaped a review process. He also indicated that he intended to contact any organizations whose material was borrowed “to apologize to them directly and to let them know it was not intentional.”
On Friday, Alexander took a similar tone.
“We’re disappointed and we’re going to fix it and deliver back a better product,” he said. “But we believe the report contains a lot of good recommendations and we don’t think it’s a one-sided document.”
LePage’s opponents in the governor’s race criticized the latest allegations and the Alexander Group in general.
“The deeply flawed and controversial Alexander report is a case study in government waste,” said Democrat Mike Michaud. “It has never been anything more than a political document meant to further Gov. LePage’s re-election.
Added independent Eliot Cutler, “The Alexander Report is a joke and waste of taxpayer money. This administration makes one bad mistake after another, and gives us bad management decision after bad management decision.”
LePage was decisive Friday but his support of the Alexander Group had been steadfast until this week.
In January, the portion of the group’s report that was released dealt with the feasibility of expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, an issue that raged throughout the legislative session.
LePage has been a vehement critic of Medicaid expansion, vetoing five different expansion bills. His administration used the $108,000 feasibility study released by Alexander to bolster its opposition. However, that effort was complicated by the controversy surrounding the procurement of the contract, Alexander’s track recorda, and flaws in the Medicaid study.
In February, the effects of the criticism were highlighted in a series of emails obtained by the Portland Press Herald. In those emails John Martins, the communications director for the DHHS, acknowledged that the Alexander controversy was complicating the administration’s anti-expansion message.
“We are succeeding on all fronts on getting the expansion message out and the focus on the (Alexander Group) report has died down,” Martins wrote in a Feb. 14 email to Mayhew and senior staff.
He concluded, “We haven’t lost anything – we have this (memo) ready for the next salvo – but I think if we have data, especially data that we can report as new, Commissioner, we can accomplish your message objective without tying it to the (Alexander Group) report.”
Alexander’s hiring has also put LePage on the defensive. In December, the governor sought to distance himself from the no-bid contract, telling WABI-TV in Bangor, “I don’t know, I didn’t hire him (Alexander), DHHS did … I don’t know much about what they did, so.”
Emails obtained by the Press Herald through a Freedom of Access Act request show that the governor personally endorsed the contract.
On Sept. 25, Mayhew notified LePage’s assistant that the contract had been finalized. In a hand-written note atop the email, the governor wrote, “Go for it!
Staff writer Steve Mistler contributed to this story.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or: