AUGUSTA — Questions raised in recent weeks about money spent on massage services, at hotels and for donations to special interest groups prompted lawmakers Friday to request an immediate review of spending by the Maine State Housing Authority.

The authority has said it can defend the spending.

Republicans aren’t so sure.

So lawmakers — from both parties — on the Government Oversight Committee voted to speed up a review to assess whether the payments match the mission of the authority.

The committee directed the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to do a “rapid response” review of five years of sponsorships, contributions, memberships, and travel and meal expenses.

A separate review of the entire housing authority, authorized previously by the committee, could take as long as a year.

Committee Chairmen Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, wrote in a letter to members that there have been “vigorous suggestions of improper spending and equally vigorous defenses of that spending.”

In light of that, they suggested the rapid response by Beth Ashcroft, director of the program evaluation office.

“Our thinking is that the unquestioned objectivity and non-partisanship of Beth Ashcroft and her staff would provide all of us with some objective data and conclusions which would help clear the air,” they wrote. “From our perspective, this should not be a partisan issue at all.”

Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said she and other Democrats supported the move to get the dispute out of the media and before the committee.

“This will give (the authority) a chance to respond,” she said.

At a housing authority board meeting this month, Chairman Peter Anastos grilled Executive Director Dale McCormick about why she authorized giving money to a theater group for ex-convicts, and making other contributions to groups he considered left-leaning.

Other questioned expenditures included payments for massage services, money paid to a martial arts academy, and tickets to places like Funtown/Splashtown.

In response, the authority has said that all of the expenses were related to its mission of providing affordable housing or were for staff wellness and training days.

At the board meeting, McCormick said she was considering asking the program evaluation office to speed up its review of her agency, hoping that it would get accurate, neutral information out to the public.

McCormick, a former Democratic state senator and state treasurer, has been in the news for the last few months, defending the agency on several fronts.

Most notably, Republican state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin has repeatedly raised questions about the cost of affordable housing projects backed by the authority, and the Maine Heritage Policy Center has filed public information requests for spending data.

The board meeting included heated exchanges between McCormick and new board members appointed by Gov. Paul LePage. McCormick said she is frustrated that she continues to provide information to the board, but members don’t accept it as factual.

The housing authority will be back in the news Tuesday, during a public hearing on L.D. 1778, which would empower the housing authority’s board to hire and fire the executive director.

Susan Cover — 620-7015

[email protected]


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