By John Christie and Naomi Schalit
© Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting
AUGUSTA — James “Jimmy” Cook, the former UPS truck driver and Teamster organizer with friends in high places at the Statehouse, got more than well-paying jobs from his political contacts.
He also was able to walk away from his job in the state Department of Economic and Community Development with more than $5000 of taxpayer money.
That’s the amount he owed the state for covering his credit card bills for state-authorized trips to places such as Long Beach, Calif. and New York City.
The state issues travel credit cards to employees with the agreement that the employee will pay the credit card bill after the state reimburses the employee for authorized travel.
In Cook’s case, the state reimbursed him for the travel with checks totaling more than $5000, but Cook pocketed the money and never paid off the credit card. The state is the guarantor of the credit card, so it was stuck paying off the credit car company.
The state has made calls and sent at least one letter to Cook in attempts to recover the loss, but despite Cook’s promises to pay off the debt in regular payments, as of just 10 days ago, he had paid only $200 in the 20 months he has owed the money.
A second $200 check showed up at the state controller’s office on March 30 this year — the day after the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting had called Cook to ask him about how he came to hold three professional-level state jobs in 2007-2008 with no college degree and a background as a teamster organizer and truck driver.
Those jobs paid Cook a total of $142,000 in salary and benefits. One of the jobs was in the tourism section of DECD, which included out of state trips in 2008. Cook’s “transaction detail” statement to the state shows, for example, costs as low as $7.22 at Papa Gino’s in Charlton, Mass. and as much as $299 at Blue Fin, a restaurant in New York’s Times Square.
The day after Cook made the $200 payment, the Center’s story documented how Cook came to hold the well-paying positions in the administration of Gov. John Baldacci.
In that story, the governor said he had known Cook, who is also from Bangor, for many years through his labor activities, and also said he supported Cook’s hiring in January 2007 at the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD). At that agency, Cook worked under then-Commissioner John Richardson. Cook’s activities included being a liaison between Richardson and organized labor, which has been a key supporter of Richardson’s current campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Late last week and early this week, the center began asking state officials, including the governor and Richardson, about Cook’s outstanding debt and what was being done to collect it.
Yesterday (Wednesday, April 7), Ryan Low, the state commissioner of administration and financial services, said Cook had “made an $802 payment just this morning. I would say that’s progress … I’m sure your article helped a little.”
Cook did not respond to a phone call message for an interview.
A RARE CASE
A review of the written record of Cook’s debts, including interdepartmental emails, and interviews with current and past state officials, demonstrates that Cook appeared immune to even high-level demands that he pay the state back. Not even a stern letter from then-state Controller Edward Karass could force Cook to pay. Nor could the Attorney General’s office.
It also reveals that it is rare for an employee to stiff the state for travel bills. State Controller Terry Brann could recall only two cases in his 12 years in the department: Cook’s and a woman who left her state job when her husband died, moved out of state and still owes about $3000.
Brann said is all other cases where there is an outstanding debt, “We make a call and it’s usually resolved quickly.”
In Cook’s case, by the time the credit card company had given up pursuing Cook and turned the matter over to the state, Cook had left his job and that gave the state less leverage to compel payment. The state was able to recover $186 towards the debt from Cook’s unused vacation and then nothing until two weeks ago except the $200 check last December.
The records shows months of back-and-forth discussion between agencies about the debt, including possible legal action.
NO LEGAL ACTION
The attorney general’s office has a collection office that could have taken on the case on behalf of the controller’s office, but AG spokesperson Kate Simmons said that office only gave advice to the controller. But, because the case was never “officially referred to us” by the controller, no legal action was taken.
However, Karass, who was the state controller when Cook incurred the debt, said he “referred it to the AG’s office.”
David Farmer, Baldacci’s chief of staff, told the Center in an email, “It is the governor’s understanding that this collection matter is being handled like similar cases. The controller has been working with the Office of the Attorney General to retrieve the outstanding balance.”
Farmer said the governor exerted no pressure on state agencies to go easy on Cook.
Former DECD Commissioner Richardson said,
“I was not aware of Jim’s debt until after his departure from DECD. The process and management of credit cards and collections is performed by DAFS (Department of Administrative and Financial Services), not DECD. Since I had no knowledge of Jim’s debt, I did not ask how it was being pursued or that it shouldn’t be pursued.”
The emails that bounced around between the state finance officials show their increasing frustration with their attempts to reach Cook and collect the money.
Brann, the controller, wrote in a Feb 26, 2010 email to other state officials, “To be honest, he (Cook) has avoided every from of communication we have sent him from our office.”
Brann said legal action could have cost more than the state might have recovered from Cook.
But he added, there have been a price beyond the $5000: “Our trust has been violated. We definitely don’t appreciate that.”
The Maine Center for Public Interest reporting in a non-partisan non-profit journalism organization.