Sometimes government officials get involved in “the appearance of a conflict of interest,” where a deal that would be normal for others without their level of influence raises suspicion in their case that something might not be on the up-and-up.

And then there’s something worse: plain old real conflicts of interest, where an official clearly does something prohibited by rules or laws.

According to Maine Attorney General William J. Schneider, the second case applies to the instance in which Patricia Barnhart, warden of the Maine State Prison, bought some property in Thomaston from the Maine Bureau of General Services for far less than its assessed value.

The property, composed of three houses on 5.2 acres of land, was assessed at $458,000. Barnhart, however, paid only $175,000 for it, apparently with the intent of subdividing the land into seven house lots.

Then, along with a partner, Sheehan D. Gallagher, she signed a $1-per-year pact with the state to lease one of the buildings back to the Department of Financial and Administrative Services, of which the Bureau of General Services is a part. The deal, begun under the Baldacci administration and finalized this spring, included a building that had been used to house prison wardens for years, although that benefit was never part of their contracts with the state.

That’s more than enough cause to raise eyebrows about a sweetheart deal and create calls for an investigation. The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee pledged to initiate such a probe after news of the sale became public.

Schneider acted last week to invalidate both the sale and lease because Maine law says, “No trustee, superintendent, treasurer or other person holding a place of trust in any state office or public institution of the State shall be pecuniarily interested directly or indirectly in any contracts made on behalf of the State … and any contract made in violation hereof is void.”

So, even if Barnhart had paid the full assessed price for the property, the sale and lease were still in direct violation of the law. Gov. Paul LePage this week halted all sales of state property pending a full policy review.

It’s good that this impropriety was quickly quashed — although presumably the AG’s office also would be investigating to see if any actions involved potential criminal activity.

But at a minimum, lawmakers should be asking Financial Services Commissioner H. Sawin Millett and Bureau of General Services Acting Director Betty A. Lamoreau to tell them how such a thing could have happened — and also to tell them how they will make sure it will never happen again.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.