Hiring records from the University of Maine System show that loopholes, waivers, personal connections and possibly political ties played a significant role in the appointment of seven state officials to some of the system’s highest-paying non-teaching jobs.

Six of the seven worked for the same state agency during the administration of Gov. John Baldacci, and the seventh was a member of the system’s board of trustees during that period.

The chairwoman of the board and her predecessor said they believe there was no improper influence in most of the hires but a review of the process is warranted.

And the new chancellor, James Page, said he will add the hiring issue to a review he is doing in response to recent questions involving university system pay raises.

“I take the allegations and concerns very seriously, but I’m not prepared to say what the strengths of those allegations and concerns are,” Page said. “Everything will be looked at.”

For three jobs — two of which oversee multimillion-dollar budgets — the system hired former state officials directly into the positions, so there was no customary search for the best-qualified people.

Each opening, for positions that pay more than $100,000 a year, was given emergency status that allowed the system to waive a policy requiring that openings be advertised and a search conducted.

In another case, a trustee resigned from the board and, a month later, applied for and was given a $137,000-a-year job at the University of Southern Maine.

In other cases, Baldacci administration officials got jobs even though they did not have the college degrees that the system listed as requirements or were not ranked as the top candidates.

Excluding benefits, the annual payroll for the seven positions is $898,000.

Only one top staffer for former Gov. Angus King went on to a UMaine system job, officials say, and no one from the LePage administration has moved into a top job in the system.

Links called coincidence

Most of the seven appointments were approved by the system’s trustees, who are appointed by the governor.

Richard Pattenaude was the chancellor when six of the seven appointments were made, some by him personally. He left the position earlier this year.

Pattenaude said that the appointed officials’ connections to the Baldacci administration were a coincidence, and that he was never asked to find them jobs.

He said “no job was ever created for anyone” and added, “all are performing at the highest level.”

The hiring questions follow another personnel controversy in the university system. The Portland Press Herald first reported in March that the system has given millions of dollars in discretionary pay raises in recent years while facing multimillion-dollar budget cuts.

Page, who started as chancellor on March 20, said the reports troubled him. New discretionary raises are suspended or will require his approval while he looks into the issue.

Joe Wishcamper, who was chairman of the system’s trustees when most of the seven appointments were made, acknowledged that shortcuts may have been taken to hire people who were known to the system from their work in state government.

He said he believes that none was the result of “inside baseball,” but the hirings “raise legitimate concerns, and those concerns should be aired and reforms and changes made to take them into account.”

The hiring pattern was discovered in documents provided by the system in response to a Freedom of Access Act request by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting and the Bangor Daily News.

The seven appointed workers are:

* Rebecca Wyke, the system’s vice chancellor of administration and finance. Wyke was hired without a job posting or a candidate search. She was Baldacci’s commissioner of administrative and financial services.

* Ryan Low, who was hired as vice president for administration and finance at UMaine-Farmington without a posting or a search. He held Wyke’s position in the Department of Administrative and Financial Services after she went to the university system job. He was later promoted to be the system’s chief lobbyist after a candidate search that was limited to other employees in the system.

* Ellen Schneiter, who was named vice president for administration and finance at UMaine-Augusta. There was a candidate search. Her degree is not in the field required by the job description. She held the Department of Administrative and Financial Services job after Low left.

* Richard Thompson, chief information officer for the system, was hired without a posting or search. He does not have a college degree and replaced a man with two degrees in computer science. He was chief information officer in the Baldacci administration.

* M.F. “Chip” Gavin, director of facilities management and general services for the system, was hired despite not having a degree in any of the required fields, such as engineering, and despite a mostly critical report from the system’s own search committee. One finalist who was passed over in favor of Gavin has two engineering degrees and years of experience in facilities management. Gavin was director of general services for Baldacci.

* Elaine Clark, executive director for facilities and real estate at the Orono campus, was hired despite being rated No. 3 and No. 5 in search committee documents. She had been director of general services for the state. She has since left the job.

* Margaret Weston, vice president for advancement at the University of Southern Maine, was hired despite having no professional experience in fundraising. She applied for the job one month after resigning from the system’s board of trustees, prompting a new ethics policy requiring a one-year waiting period for moving from the board to a paid job in the system. Weston was appointed to the board by Gov. Angus King and was reappointed by Baldacci. It was during the Baldacci appointment that she got the USM job.

Only two of the seven responded to the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting’s request for comment. Low and Weston said they believe they were qualified for their jobs.

Baldacci, responding to questions by email, wrote: “The men and women who serve at the top levels of Maine government are some of the most qualified in the state and have numerous opportunities for employment. I’m proud that members of my administration decided to continue public service when they could have found much more lucrative employment in the private sector.”

But a national expert on political patronage said the hires represent an “outrageous example” of using a higher-education system to provide safe jobs for people with the right connections.

Martin Tolchin and his wife, Susan, are co-authors of “Pinstripe Patronage: Political Favoritism from the Clubhouse to the White House and Beyond.”

He said the University of Maine System “is being used as a dumping ground” for friends and supporters from the higher levels of state government.

Howard Segal, a professor of history at UMaine for the past 26 years and a member of the Faculty Senate, said the hires confirmed his belief that at the upper levels of the system, “education is not the issue — political power is.”

“It’s terrible business-as-usual, and it’s outrageous,” he said. “These are my tax dollars, and I’m infuriated.”

Minimum standards flexible

The UMaine system’s hiring policy manual says: “It is impermissible to hire an individual who does not meet the state minimum qualifications.”

Former Chancellor Pattenaude and Chief Human Resources Officer Tracy Bigney said the rules allow leeway.

“When you get to a senior level,” said Pattenaude, “experience weighs as much or more than a degree from years ago.”

Bigney said, “We are usually quite careful to say relevant experience can be substituted for education.”

However, none of the job qualification documents provided to the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting say that experience can be substituted for the educational requirements.

Wishcamper, who is president of a real estate development firm, said, “I believe none was a political appointment. I have had extensive experience working with governmental bodies and have seen many that are populated with patronage appointments to high-level jobs. I have seen no evidence of this in the UMaine System.”

Michelle Hood, the current chair of the system’s trustees, said she is confident that the hires were made wisely, but she did not recall details of any of them except Low’s.

“I personally have seen no evidence that there is an influence being applied from the governor’s office,” the Legislature or other policy makers in Augusta, she said.

But, she said, “I certainly plan to talk with the board and chancellor about some concerns some people might have about this, to make sure we’re being as transparent as we can be.”

Bangor Daily News reporter Nick McCrea contributed to this story.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Hallowell.

Email: [email protected]

Web: pinetreewatchdog.org


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