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Lawmakers move to take politics out of grant awards

AUGUSTA — The controversy over a $3 million energy grant that went to a politically-connected group may lead to a new law to subject state and federal grants to a competitive process. On Tuesday, the legislature’s government oversight committee voted unanimously to begin the process of writing legislation that would make it hard to award grants and contracts to unqualified  applicants, citing as an example the money awarded to the Maine Green Energy Alliance by the agency that runs the state energy programs.

“I just find it hard to believe that we don’t have anything in place in this state” that prevents political meddling or favoritism in the awarding of grants, said Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, co-chairman of the committee. “Am I the only one that’s amazed by that fact? It just boggles my mind.”

The suggested legislative changes grew out of an audit of the Alliance by the legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) that found the agency was not capable of handling the $3 million Stimulus grant. The Alliance folded in January amid news reports that it had signed up only 50 of a projected 1,000 homes for energy efficiency upgrades. Continue Reading →

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Audit: state gave $3m contract to group that lacked capacity

AUGUSTA — A state audit has found that the agency in charge of all of the state’s energy programs gave a $3 million grant to a startup non-profit that was incapable of taking on the responsibility of the contract. And while the audit found no misuse of funds, it concluded that Efficiency Maine Trust should have known that Maine Green Energy Alliance, the nonprofit set up by Gov. John Baldacci’s former counsel, “lacked the capacity to adequately administer federal funds when the grant was received.”

The report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, was released Monday to the legislature’s Government Oversight Committee. “The good news is nobody stole any money,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chair of the committee. “The bad news is the people’s business is not being conducted in a way we should expect.”

Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, defended the Alliance at the statehouse hearing: “As far as I can see, there was no criminal activity or wrongdoing once the questions were asked.”

The OPEGA report said the grant was given to “an organization that was not yet set up to administer, account for and make decisions about use of those funds in the manner expected of entities that spend public funds.”

The report also said, “No instances of inappropriate uses or missing funds were used.”

Efficiency Maine Trust was established by the legislature to promote energy savings, improve the environment and promote “sustainable economic development.” Their $41 million grant program is funded by fees on consumer’s electric bills, federal grants and the greenhouse gas program. In May, OPEGA was asked to conduct a review of how the grant funds to the Alliance were used and if they were properly accounted for. Continue Reading →

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Legislators say leak of contract probe designed to “spin” findings

AUGUSTA — Lawmakers Wednesday strongly condemned the potentially illegal leak of parts of a confidential state investigation of a now-defunct energy group, the Maine Green Energy Alliance, and its state sponsor, the Efficiency Maine Trust. They also said the leak was designed to cast both organizations in the best light possible before the formal release of the full investigation next Tuesday. The legislators were referring to a story in Wednesday’s Portland Press Herald headlined “Probe finds no wrongdoing by Maine Green Energy Alliance.”

That premature conclusion drew the ire of Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chair of the legislature’s

bipartisan Government Oversight Committee, who said neither he nor any of the other committee members have seen the report. “The committee, the members of the public and everybody should be receiving a report at the same time to draw their own conclusions,” Katz said. “For the subject of the report to be pre-empting news coverage by putting their own spin on it before the report is even released doesn’t help that orderly process. Continue Reading →

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‘Rapid’ probe ordered for green energy group

AUGUSTA — The head of the state’s accountability agency promised a legislative committee on Friday to “follow the money” as she investigates the $1.1 million grant that went to a now defunct energy group. The bipartisan Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously to not only order the probe by the Office of Program and Government Accountability (OPEGA), but to subject it to the “rapid response process.”

OPEGA director Beth Ashcroft explained that means the audit on the Maine Green Energy Alliance will go to the head of the line and other projects will take a little longer to complete. While she was uncertain how long the study would take, she said many of the documents had already been sent to her by another legislative committee. She said that she would know within three weeks if she and her staff will need much longer to compete their work. The initials questions about the grant were raised by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology following news stories by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting that revealed the Alliance had not met its goals for signing up households for energy audits. Continue Reading →

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Committee votes for further investigation of Maine Green Energy Alliance

Sparks flew, the gavel banged and tempers flared Friday as lawmakers debated whether to have the Legislature’s watchdog agency conduct a formal inquiry into the now-defunct Maine Green Energy Alliance. Despite the rancor between the top Republican and Democrat on the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, committee members — who have spent the last two months conducting their own informal inquiry — ultimately voted unanimously to ask the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to investigate the alliance. The organization abruptly folded in late January and forfeited the unused portion of a $1 million stimulus grant to market home energy retrofits in Maine after failing to meet grant goals. After the vote, committee co-Chairman Rep. Stacey Fitts, a Pittsfield Republican, said he wanted OPEGA to launch an inquiry because the committee’s job is to make policy, not conduct investigations and draw conclusions. “The background information will go to OPEGA that we’ve seen to this point,” Fitts said. Continue Reading →

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Energy Alliance spends $6,000 of state grant for data program from pro-Democratic firm

The energy group with strong ties to the Democratic party that won — and then forfeited — a $1.1 million stimulus grant spent $6,000 for a database from a technology company devoted to promoting Democratic candidates and causes. Maine Green Energy Alliance used the database to canvass homeowners it was trying to persuade to sign up for energy audits last summer and fall. The group was unable to sign up the number of homeowners it promised in its contract with the state and returned the unspent portion of the grant, estimated at $600,000. The database expense was revealed in documents submitted to the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology. News stories by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting led members of the committee to question alliance founder Tom Federle and Executive Director Seth Murray last month. Continue Reading →

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Legislators demand answers from green energy group

AUGUSTA — Legislators grilled staff of the Maine Green Energy Alliance for almost three hours Thursday as the first step in an inquiry of the failed federal stimulus grantee. News reports have detailed recently how the organization founded by a prominent Democratic lawyer got a $3 million federal Department of Energy grant in 2010, in part through the intervention of then-Gov. John Baldacci, and forfeited that grant in late January 2011 because it had not been able to deliver results as promised. The alliance’s poor performance on its target of doing outreach and education to sign up 1,000 Maine homes for weatherizing was the subject of a number of questions Thursday afternoon. But lawmakers on the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology were just as interested in why the alliance hired what legislators appeared to consider an unusual number of Democratic legislators and candidates for the Legislature. “I look at the list of names,” said Committee Co-chairman Rep. Stacy Fitts, R-Pittsfield, “the list of candidates and the list of towns and it just starts to honestly appear as something other than, or in addition to, what your original mission was.”

Alliance founder Tom Federle acknowledged that hiring three sitting Democratic House members and one Democratic House candidate for the 13-member staff — plus several high-level Democratic campaign operatives and donors — was a problem. Continue Reading →

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Gov. LePage, legislators question grant to green energy group

Gov. Paul LePage said this week that it is “imperative” to find out if the state exercised appropriate oversight of the Maine Green Energy Alliance, which recently surrendered the balance of a $1.1 million contract with Efficiency Maine Trust after it failed to make progress in meeting milestones set by the agency. After five months of work, the alliance had signed up 50 homes for weatherization on a contract that called for 1,000 homes to be signed up in 12 months. The Hallowell-based MGEA was granted $3 million in federal stimulus funds over 3 years through Efficiency Maine, and entered into a $1.1 million contract for the first year of the project. The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting reported last week that former Gov. John Baldacci’s office had pressed state officials at Efficiency Maine to include MGEA in the federal grant to increase the number of Maine homes that are weatherized. “It’s imperative that we find out if there was appropriate oversight of the Maine Green Energy Alliance,” LePage said in a written statement sent to MCPIR late Tuesday in response to a query. Continue Reading →

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Energy program shut down after questions raised about politics, effectiveness

A program funded by a $3 million government grant to market home energy retrofits in Maine abruptly shut down its operation late last week. Records show that almost six months into its first year of the no-bid contract under the grant, the Maine Green Energy Alliance had signed up only 50 households for energy retrofits, but had promised in its contract to have 1,000 signed up in 12 months. An investigation by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting into Maine Green Energy Alliance’s operation and performance revealed that Efficiency Maine, a state agency charged with identifying ways to save on energy costs, was asked in 2009 by a top aide to former Gov. John Baldacci to include a funding request by Maine Green Energy Alliance in a larger grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Energy, despite misgivings by some agency officials. During the grant process, the Sierra Club questioned MGEA’s inclusion in the master grant, and according to an Efficiency Maine e-mail, MGEA set aside $250,000 in its first-year budget to make community donations to quiet objections. MGEA founder Thomas Federle, a former counsel to Baldacci, said politics and influence played no part in his organization being included in the state’s grant and subsequently getting the no-bid contract. Continue Reading →

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