AUGUSTA — Questions about payments to vendors, sponsorships and politics dominated a testy meeting of the Maine State Housing Authority Board of Commissioners on Friday.

Tempers flared, accusations of lying were made and little substantive work was done during the four-hour meeting, much of which was a face-off between board Chairman Peter Anastos and Executive Director Dale McCormick.

McCormick, a former Democratic state senator and treasurer, said she has tried for months to give facts to Anastos, state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and other new Republican board members to help them understand how the authority works.

But tension between board members and McCormick is so high that they don’t trust the information she gives them. “I don’t call them facts,” Anastos said. “I call them misdirection.”

Throughout the meeting, Anastos asked why it took months for information about the housing authority’s spending to be released to the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank, and why a liberal blog, Dirigo Blue, seemed to get information quickly when it asked for data.

“This is what happens when the board really lacks oversight,” Poliquin said.

“Oh, I object,” McCormick replied. “That doesn’t even meet the straight face test.”

Then Anastos raised his voice, questioning how the press — and Dirigo Blue — got information from the authority’s communications office.

“How do we run this place?” he said. “It is strange. It’s almost getting goofy.”

McCormick responded, “Peter, Peter, this is serious. You are being reckless. You are drawing huge conclusions about an economic engine of this state. You are undermining its reputation. It’s wrong. It’s not OK. And you know better than that.”

The meeting got so heated that during a break, McCormick told reporters she was considering asking the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to step up the time line for its review of the authority’s spending practices. Lawmakers have asked for a review, but such examinations typically take several months.

“I think we need a referee in this,” and the program evualuation office is “the most neutral party,” she said.

To begin the meeting, Anastos said there has been controversy ever since he joined the board in October, including questions about the cost of affordable housing, substandard housing conditions in Norway and questioned expenditures.

In general, board members expressed frustration that they don’t get information from the authority faster, and that information sometimes is released to the press at the same time it is received by board members.

“This is so dysfunctional it’s very frustrating,” said board member Lincoln Merrill. “If you boil it all down, you can do any damn thing you please. There’s nothing we can do about it. This is over a billion (dollar) operation and it’s being run like a corner grocery store. There’s not enough oversight.”

McCormick said the authority invests millions in the state, it’s audited by several federal agencies and its board and director are appointed by the governor.

“We do a lot of good,” she said. “And to have you say … this is the ugliest place you have ever seen, that is reckless. We are beginning to get inquiries from major bond holders asking if it’s OK to invest in the state of Maine. I would hope that this board can get itself under control.”

Poliquin said, “In my opinion, the executive director is incorrect when she states there is concern among our bond holders. … I think that is a gross misstatement of fact.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” McCormick interrupted. “I just took a call yesterday.”

Poliquin is awaiting an opinion from the attorney general about whether he can run his private businesses while serving as state treasurer. During a break in the meeting, he again refused to comment on the questions surrounding his service.

During the meeting, the board discussed whether it should publicly support a bill, L.D. 1778, that would make McCormick and all future housing authority directors serve at the pleasure of the board. But because most commissioners had not read the bill, they decided against a formal vote.

McCormick made it clear that she opposes the legislation, saying the housing authority should remain “above the political fray.”

Anastos said it’s clear to him that the authority is already political, given that McCormick has directed its money to groups with a left-wing agenda. Since 2008, the authority has spent $10,000 to $20,000 a year for booths at events and for advertisements in publications. That money comes from the authority’s $14 million annual operating budget.

In particular, Anastos wanted to know why the authority gave $14,450 over two years to Maine Inside Out, a theater group for ex-convicts.

McCormick said the group was targeting homeless youths with its programming, so she felt it was related to the authority’s mission.

Anastos also asked about $1,200 over three years for Maine Initiatives, which he described as a “who’s who of the Maine Democratic Party.” Its website describes it as “Maine’s leading social justice foundation.”

McCormick said the money paid for a booth at Maine Initiatives’ annual meeting because the group works with low-income people.

Board member Donald Capoldo suggested that the authority’s board and staff form a committee to review all future requests for sponsorships. The board asked McCormick to come to the next meeting with an explanation of why money was given to the groups on the list that dates back to 2008.

Regarding the public records request from the Maine Heritage Policy Center, housing authority staffers said the policy center wanted 800,000 lines of information, all of which had to be reviewed in case it contained personal information about clients that would have to be redacted. This week, the authority released 500 pages of information about vendors, but the list did not include dates or amounts of the expenses.

That prompted the Maine Heritage Policy Center to write a story questioning expenses for hotel stays, massage services and tickets to Funtown/Splashtown. The authority said the hotel stays were related to professional conferences, the massage services were part of staff wellness days, and the amusement park tickets were paid for by employees.

McCormick said her agency is having trouble fulfilling the current information request from the Maine Heritage Policy Center, and another request from the group means she will have to look through 88,000 emails to comply.

“It’s getting ridiculous,” she said. “Whatever is going on out there, they need to just let MaineHousing do the good work that we do.”

Susan Cover — 620-7015

[email protected]

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