AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday that State House news reporters were “complicit” in covering up a federal welfare fraud investigation in Portland.

LePage, during his weekly phone-in interview on WVOM’s Ric Tyler and George Hale radio show in Bangor, said his communications staff, Peter Steele and Adrienne Bennett, had been working for “months” to publicize the investigation into the Ahram Halal Market but were “ignored” by the news media in Augusta.

But reporters and editors for news outlets that cover the State House, including the Portland Press Herald, the Bangor Daily News, the Sun Journal of Lewiston, the Associated Press and Maine Public Radio, said LePage’s staff never contacted them about the case.

LePage has also made no mention of the case in his other weekly appearances on WVOM, where he often breaks news.

Steele, the governor’s communication director, did not respond to a request for comment on why LePage believes it important to draw attention to the case before any formal charges were filed.

The investigation was detailed in an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in April by an FBI agent. The affidavit alleges that Ali Daham, owner of the Ahram Halal Market on Forest Avenue, used his business to perpetrate a “cash-back” scheme that converted food stamp benefits into cash, and that he pocketed a portion of the funds.

Investigators say the scheme was one of several criminal enterprises conducted at the store, including through an associate of Daham’s, Ashraf Eldeknawey, who allegedly offered to prepare fraudulent tax returns to enrich others and himself. No criminal charges have been brought against either man.

Lenny Sharon, an attorney for Eldeknawey, said Tuesday his client maintains his innocence.

“We are stunned by (LePage’s) response to two individuals who last time I checked are presumed innocent under both the Maine and U.S. constitutions,” Sharon wrote in an email to the Press Herald. “The publicity and the strident nature of the allegations being made will serve no purpose but to hinder their constitutional right to receive a fair and unpolluted jury should the case be tried.”

Sharon questioned whether the LePage administration had political motives for publicizing the investigation.

“Why should our clients’ constitutional rights be ignored for political gain?” he asked. “They thought they had left that brand of justice back in Iraq and Egypt where trials are often political side shows where guilt is presumed, reputations are ruined, fact finders are biased. They had hoped for better.”

LePage’s staff did not issue a news release, the standard method of getting information to the media, before the investigation was first reported Monday by Lifezette.com, a news site owned by conservative talk show pundit Laura Ingraham.

A few hours after Lifezette.com published its story, LePage issued a news release calling attention to the investigation and claiming that Maine media had “ignored” the affidavit, which had been publicly available in federal court files for months. “By purposely choosing not to cover this story, Maine media is complicit in hiding welfare fraud,” LePage said.

On the radio Tuesday morning, LePage repeated the allegation.

“We have been trying for months and months and months to get the journalists in Augusta to pick this up,” LePage said.

Keith Shortall, Maine Public Radio’s news and public affairs director, said a reporter who covers the courts for the network knew of the case but was not tipped by LePage’s staff. When the reporter contacted Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew to discuss the investigation, she declined to confirm or comment on it, Shortall said.

He said the network decided not to publish a story because it is “reluctant to report” on cases before there are charges or an indictment.

Steele, the governor’s communications director, could not provide evidence Monday to support LePage’s claim that Maine media ignored the fraud investigation. He refused to say which reporters were contacted about the story and wouldn’t explain why LePage didn’t call a news conference to discuss it.

LePage rarely holds news conferences, and when he does the events are usually well attended by Maine’s newspaper, radio and television reporters.

“We fully expect the petulant Maine media will write furiously about who was contacted and who wasn’t, rather than doing some investigation into this kind of welfare fraud,” Steele wrote in an email to the Press Herald when questioned about LePage’s claims that his staff was being ignored.

Asked again why the administration didn’t contact the news media, Steele replied: “It’s kinda sad Maine reporters have to wait around for the Governor to have a press conference before writing about welfare fraud.”

On the radio show, LePage said, “It’s pretty overwhelming evidence that these guys (at the market) were really going at it pretty hard. They were pretty comfortable that they were going to get away with it. They got to get their day in court but there’s a resounding amount of evidence against these people.”

LePage has long focused on limiting welfare benefits going to immigrants in Maine, especially those seeking asylum in the U.S. In his most recent budget proposals, LePage tried to cut state funding for cities that provide General Assistance benefits to refugees seeking political asylum.

In August, he vowed to scrutinize public assistance benefits for immigrants following revelations that an Iranian refugee who had lived in Freeport and received benefits later fought for the Islamic State and died in battle in Lebanon. However, the state doesn’t have the authority to deny federal welfare benefits to refugees, and while state agencies oversee many federal welfare programs, the states must follow federal rules when administering them.

LePage’s administration has also publicized previous cases of welfare fraud and state efforts to combat welfare abuse. The number of welfare fraud investigators at DHHS was increased from nine to 17 at a cost to the state of about $700,000 a year.

In 2015, DHHS fraud investigators referred 105 cases to the Attorney General’s Office for prosecution, leading to 36 convictions and court-ordered restitution of $467,300. All 36 convicted were U.S. citizens. In 2014, 81 welfare fraud cases were prosecuted, up from 66 in 2013, 45 in 2012, 32 in 2011, 10 in 2010 and none in 2009, according to DHHS officials.

Nationally about 0.9 percent of all legal non-citizens receive cash benefits from the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, while about 17 percent of all non-citizens receive benefits from the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

The Republican governor also took aim at Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat who frequently clashes with LePage on legal and public policy issues. When one of the radio show hosts noted that the case in question was a federal case and wouldn’t be prosecuted by Mills, LePage responded, “Thank God.”

Mills’ office is “shying away from prosecuting anybody in the immigrant community – they are not interested,” he said.

But Tim Feeley, a spokesman for Mills, said immigration status is not a factor in decisions about prosecuting cases.

“His assertion is not authoritative,” Feeley said of LePage’s claim. “The case described in the news is being handled by federal authorities. This office does not consider citizenship status (or lack thereof) in any way, shape or form when deciding whether or not to prosecute.”

Feeley also said court rules in Maine discourage prosecutors from commenting on pending or impending charges ahead of a trial, in order to protect the integrity of the justice system.

“So, while a search warrant affidavit may be public record, comments by a prosecutor before the completion of a case are very rare and only give fodder to defense attorneys to suggest that their clients’ right to a fair trial is jeopardized, make it difficult to impanel an impartial jury and therefore should be avoided,” Feeley said.

 


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