Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday that he is considering asking for a refund from a consultant he commissioned to analyze and report on Maine’s welfare programs, in response to reports that The Alexander Group plagiarized other sources.
“I will take every action we can,” LePage said in a statement released by his press secretary, Adrienne Bennett. “I am not happy about this.”
The governor said last week that he will withhold part or all of the more than $400,000 the state still owes to the Rhode Island-based Alexander Group. On Tuesday, he said he may “go back after what we paid,” referring to the $500,000 that Gary Alexander has already collected.
“It’s all a matter of the extent of what the damage is,” he said.
A decision could come soon, Bennett said.
The LePage administration has come under fire since last fall for hiring The Alexander Group, led by Alexander, a former human services commissioner in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, to conduct a $925,000 evaluation of Maine’s welfare system.
Democrats first criticized the fact that LePage, without seeking bids for the contract, picked a consulting group with a history of promoting welfare policies that directly align with the governor’s conservative beliefs.
They later criticized the group for missing deadlines spelled out in the contract and for overstating the projected cost of expanding Maine’s Medicaid program, MaineCare, in a report it issued in January.
Until recently, the governor and Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew have stood behind The Alexander Group and its work.
Last week, The Alexander Group came under fire again, for lifting passages from other published reports while providing limited or no attribution.
A plagiarism expert at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia said he found at least five instances of plagiarism in the most recent report by The Alexander Group, submitted this month. Professor Mike Smit studied the report at the request of Mike Tipping, communications director for the liberal Maine People’s Alliance and a columnist for the Portland Press Herald.
Smit found five additional instances of improper or missing attribution in the report that The Alexander Group issued in January, which concluded that expanding MaineCare would add 124,000 recipients and increase costs by $807 million over 10 years.
Those findings were subsequently disputed by critics, who said The Alexander Group made a $575 million calculation error and failed to incorporate any cost savings related to MaineCare expansion.
In an interview Friday, Alexander acknowledged “discrepancies” in his reports and said they were the fault of one employee, who was disciplined and removed from the Maine project. Alexander did not respond to follow-up requests for comment about the suspension of payments from the state.
Democrats have argued that Maine should get back the $500,000 it has paid.
“Maine taxpayers deserve a full refund. It’s not enough to suspend payments for this flawed and controversial contractor,” said House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick. “It’s fraudulent work. No amount of 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.”
To support welfare reform policies in the face of state data showing that fraud is relatively rare, the LePage administration and some Republican supporters have said repeatedly that no fraud should be tolerated.
In its response to the plagiarism disclosures, the LePage administration put out mixed messages last week.
The governor announced Friday that he had suspended payments and would continue to investigate the matter.
However, Bennett, his press secretary, said in a follow-up phone call that LePage had actually suspended the payments on Wednesday, the day when Commissioner Mayhew publicly downplayed the issue, saying “the media and Democrats have chosen to politicize punctuation over policy.”
So far, The Alexander Group has submitted four of the five studies the state hired it to conduct. In April, the DHHS agreed to amend the contract to give the group an extension to submit the remaining report. That report is now due July 15, but is considered “pending due to the latest developments,” Bennett said.
It’s not clear what will become of Alexander’s work and recommendations, but the governor has not ruled out terminating the contract, which would make the reports virtually meaningless.
“The administration continues to investigate the extent of the validity of the allegations and appropriate action will be taken, including and up to termination of the contract, if warranted,” Bennett said in an email.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: