Maine lawmakers trying to get answers this week about how a top state employee was able to negotiate the purchase of valuable state property found the effort essentially fruitless.

Maine State Prison Warden Patricia Barnhart was ineligible to buy five acres of land and three buildings used for housing corrections employees (including the warden), the state attorney general has ruled, because state law prohibits the sale of property to state employees.

But legislators on the Government Oversight Committee were given professions of ignorance of that fact by the very people whose job it was to know the law governing such purchases. And it’s still not clear what remedy either legislators or higher administrators can find to hold those people accountable for their apparently illegal decisions.

Of all those involved, Barnhart appears to have the least culpability, but may have the most to lose.

According to records furnished to the committee, she borrowed about $163,000 of the $175,000 purchase price from a local bank and apparently still owes the balance of the loan, even though the AG has said the sale is illegal.

Some members of the committee inquired about how to keep the warden “whole” regarding the now-canceled transaction, but that was finally determined to be a matter to be worked out between Barnhart and Attorney General William Schneider.

More responsibility accrues to two supervisors. One is Betty Lamoreau, who helped negotiate the sale as an employee of the Bureau of General Services. She is now the bureau’s head, replacing Chip Gavin, who held the job when the sale was proposed.

Both Lamoreau and Gavin told the committee in testimony Tuesday that they were working unaware that Barnhart was not an eligible buyer, or that the property ought to have been put up for a competitive bidding process.

There’s no reason to think they are lying, but even so, such admissions indicate that their job performance can be described only as pathetically poor.

While it seems unlikely that any state worker remains ignorant of the law now, that one of the people involved has been promoted is hardly an action designed to inspire confidence in similar situations in the future.

Gov. Paul LePage is the person ultimately responsible for the actions of executive branch workers. He should be actively addressing these employees’ shortfalls right now.

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