Beth Ashcroft, who has led the Legislature’s nonpartisan watchdog agency since its inception 13 years ago, plans to step down this summer as the agency is partway through a high-profile child death investigation.

Ashcroft recently notified legislative leaders that she planned to leave on Aug. 24th, providing roughly six months to find a new director of OPEGA, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. The 10-person office is charged with reviewing the performance and effectiveness of state programs but has also conducted numerous high-profile investigations that led to major changes.

“It’s definitely a tough decision,” said Ashcroft, OPEGA’s first and only director, in an interview Wednesday. “But on a personal level, it is time to do something else. And we now have the office and staff in a place where they can carry on without me, so I don’t have any qualms that it won’t be left in a good position.”

Ashcroft’s departure in August means she likely will help oversee the start – but may not see the completion – of what is likely to be one of OPEGA’s most significant and closely watched investigations.

Last week, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, which directs OPEGA’s workload, asked the agency to investigate the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and its handling of two recent child deaths. OPEGA will look into the deaths of Marissa Kennedy, 10, and Kendall Chick, 4 – and whether or not DHHS did enough to ensure their safety.

Committee members asked OPEGA to fast-track the review given the grave concerns raised by the deaths of the two children, both of whom police suspect were abused for months. In Kennedy’s case, numerous people contacted DHHS or police about suspected abuse but the 10-year-old was never removed from the home.

OPEGA is expected to complete an expedited review of the two cases by May. The second phase of the investigation will depend on what OPEGA discovers and the Government Oversight Committee’s feedback.

Although disappointed that Ashcroft is departing, lawmakers who work closely with the agency said they were confident the DHHS review and other OPEGA work will continue in good hands.

“There is always going to be something that we are in the middle of . . . but we’ll just have to do the best we can, and I know that Beth will leave us in a very strong position,” said Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, co-chair of the Government Oversight Committee.

Sen. Roger Katz, an Augusta Republican who serves alongside Mastraccio as co-chair, said the committee’s unanimous vote to ask OPEGA to investigate the issue is indicative of the level of trust in Ashcroft and the agency she helped to build.

“Beth is one of the most respected people in state government,” Katz said. “She has been there since the beginning of OPEGA and has not only been incredibly competent but she has also been able to hire and retain very good people. But I think one of the most significant things she has done is she always kept OPEGA viewed as non-partisan and totally objective.”

A former auditor at Central Maine Power Co., Ashcroft is widely regarded by Republicans and Democrats alike for her evenhandedness and ability to separate politics from her work. In an interview, Ashcroft said she is not retiring but that she and her husband are finally following through on their long-discussed plans to winter in Arizona while spending springs and summers in Maine.

“I am still here until August and we have a lot of work to do,” Ashcroft said.

A search for her replacement is under way.

OPEGA was created through legislation in 2002, but it didn’t launch until three years later.

Past investigations by the agency under Ashcroft’s direction have targeted: Riverview Psychiatric Facility in Augusta: the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which is the state’s share of tobacco settlement money: the Maine Turnpike Authority; and the Maine State Lottery, among others.

Some of those investigations led to major policy changes and even criminal charges.

In 2011, for instance, the longtime head of the Maine Turnpike Authority, Paul Violette, resigned after an OPEGA review could not account for hundreds of thousands of dollars in turnpike money spent on gift cards and credit cards. Violette later pleaded guilty to stealing between $150,000 and $230,000 from the Maine Turnpike Authority and served roughly 20 months in prison.

Another 2011 review found that the state routinely sold off properties to buyers without first marketing to the public and that Maine lacked guidelines for such sales. That review was sparked by furor over the sale of state-owned land and three houses in Thomaston to a former Maine State Warden prison for one-third of the assessed value.

More recently, OPEGA waded into the politically fraught issue of Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s role in the decision by the Good Will-Hinckley nonprofit to withdraw a job offer to former Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves.

“When OPEGA comes out with a report, people pay attention,” said Katz. “They know it will be well-researched and with no agenda.”

Ashcroft said she was proud of the work of OPEGA, citing several of the cases above as examples of the agency’s nonpartisan work. She also cited the current rolling review being undertaken by OPEGA – at the direction of the Government Oversight Committee – of dozens of tax incentives programs whose expenditures and results often go unexamined.

“That was a long time coming,” Ashcroft said. “Back when I started in 2005, there was bipartisan concern about how we can get a handle on evaluating these tax incentives programs.”

In addition to the DHHS investigation that just launched, OPEGA has other reviews underway, including: a look at whether the state has been managing its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program properly, examining the state’s citizen-initiated referendum process, and a probe of Maine’s beverage container redemption programs.

The Office of the Executive Director of the Maine Legislature is already advertising to fill Ashcroft’s position. Several members of the Government Oversight Committee, OPEGA staff and others legislative staff will review applicants along with members of the Personnel Committee of the Legislative Council. That Personnel Committee will then make a recommendation to the full Legislative Council, which is comprised of the five Democratic and five Republican leaders in the Legislature.

The OPEGA director position has a salary range of $76,150 to $111,092, according to the executive director’s office.

 

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