AUGUSTA — Two conservative Maine groups released a secretly recorded video Thursday that they say exposes “vulnerabilities” in Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services.

In the video, released by Americans for Prosperity and the Maine Heritage Policy Center, an actor visits a DHHS office in Biddeford and, calling himself Ted Ceanneidigh, tries to receive Medicaid benefits while broadly hinting that he is a drug smuggler. However, the man did not receive benefits.

The video was sent to Carol Weston, state director of Americans For Prosperity of Maine, by James O’Keefe, who calls himself a citizen journalist. His Project Veritas effort has generated controversy and criticism nationally for using heavily edited video clips to “expose” illegal activities or liberal media bias. Some of his past targets have included ACORN and Planned Parenthood.

Gov. Paul LePage, who campaigned for office in part on a pledge to reduce welfare fraud, said Thursday that he thinks the video, which the group said was shot in February, shows the worker was inexperienced and inadequately trained, but emphasized no fraud occurred.

“We need to be far more professional and we have to provide better training and I take complete responsibilty for that. That is my job to make sure that happens,” said LePage, who briefed reporters along with DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew.

But he added, “I do not believe for a second that the individual involved was willfully allowing abuse of the welfare system.”

The shorter, edited version of the video shown at a press conference Thursday focuses on the response of the DHHS worker, identified only as Diane. The clip shows her saying the applicant can report that he has no income because he has no paychecks — despite the fact that he tells her he runs a cash business. He also tells her he owns a Corvette and shows her a photo of what he says is his boat, “The Bob Marley.”

Weston said the actor eventually left the state office with a form to apply for MaineCare benefits.

“This video reveals explosive evidence of the potential for fraud within Maine’s Medicaid system,” Weston said. “It replaces what have been unverifiable anecdotes of welfare system fraud and abuse with a concrete example of unethical and potentially illegal behavior within Maine’s welfare bureaucracy.”

The actor never returned the application for processing. O’Keefe in an interview said his group felt it would be committing fraud to do so.

But in a 49-minute version of the video that the group also released, the worker also repeatedly tells the actor, who speaks with an Irish accent, that she cannot help him fill out his application until he presents photo identification, a passport or naturalization papers. She also repeatedly tries to get him to apply for insurance through Dirigo Health, which offers subsidized insurance, but would require him to pay a premium.

The DHHS worker also consults her supervisor, who questions the applicant and tells him that he was being evasive.

O’Keefe said in an interview that the Maine video is part of a wider effort by himself and his backers to expose Medicaid fraud across the country.

He said Maine was selected because its laws allow people to be videotaped without their knowledge if one person — in this case, the person doing the taping — is aware of it.

“So far in all the videos we’ve done — it’s not just Maine — we have seen instances where people don’t do the right thing. I don’t believe that’s the individual employee, I think that’s the system that cultivates this type of behavior,” he said, citing similar examples in Ohio, Virginia and South Carolina.

His non-profit organization, Project Veritas, is funded by small donors who give online, O’Keefe said. He said he distributed the video to Americans for Prosperity of Maine and not LePage’s office because he didn’t “have a lot of contacts up there” and wanted to ensure the video would get widely distributed.

Weston said her group did not solicit the video.

Lance Dutson, chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, which also hosted Thursday’s press conference, said the video supports the theory his group has about the “culture” at DHHS.

“It shows clearly what many of us have believed for some time — that Maine’s welfare system is exceedingly vulnerable to fraud and that we have front-line stewards of taxpayer funds who are not adequately equipped to perform their duties,” he said.

LePage said he wishes he could have seen the video in February, when it was allegedly taken, so he could have addressed the problem earlier.

Mayhew defended the DHHS supervisor and the initial caseworker’s willingness to call her boss to help her.

“There are positives we also need to focus on,” Mayhew said.

Mayhew declined to discuss whether or not the DHHS worker, Diane, has or will face any disciplinary action.

“We need to focus on the system,” she said.

A recently created fraud and abuse workgroup had already identified the need for improved training for front-line workers, LePage and Mayhew said, but they said the video also provides a catalyst for action.

Sara Gagne-Holmes, of Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group for low-income Mainers, emphasized that the video showed no actual fraud and the applicant did not receive any benefits.

“I don’t think it shows any fraud; to say that it is an example of fraud is speculative,” she said. “But to say this is an example of all the anecdotes that we’ve heard in the past is false.”

O’Keefe said another video was shot at a different DHHS office in Maine and he hopes to unveil those results soon.

Rebekah Metzler – 620-7016

[email protected]

 


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