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Expert: Recouping $500K Spent on Welfare Report Not a Slam Dunk

A.J. Higgins

Following revelations that a controversial consultant hired by the LePage adminstration to study the state's welfare system had lifted segments of its report from the work of a national think tank, Gov. Paul LePage has frozen future payments to the Alexander Group. LePage has also hinted that he may attempt to get a refund for the $500,000 already paid to the firm. But an adjunct professor at the University of Maine School of Law says he believes that language in the state's contract with the Alexander Group could be broadly construed by both sides, making the outcome of a legal challenge anything but clear.

The governor has been a stauch defender of Gary Alexander's Rhode Island-based consultant group, but his support began to diminish after the Bangor Daily News reported that sections of the study had been lifted word-for-word from an earlier published analysis.

Now, LePage says he has frozen more than $400,000 in future payments to Alexander and may seek the return of $500,000 already paid. But in reviewing the state's contract, Portland attorney and University of Maine Law School Adjunct Professor Gerald Petruccelli says that could prove to be no easy task.

"It seemed to me that by normal contract standards, there's a certain amount of room to argue about what was being required in the first place, and what were the expectations that the Alexander Group had to meet," Petruccelli says.

"I think that there is certainly an argument to be made if there are substantial chunks of this report that were simply lifted without attribution from other sources, that that's just a fundamental breach of the contract," Petruccelli says. "Also there are arguments which I understand that the Alexander Group is making that they used reliable sources, they documented their work by looking at other professionals, and that they didn't properly identify those and they're sorry."

The legal dust storm that could develop as the result pales by comparison to the political tsunami the scandal has triggered at the State House. Democratic leaders who fought the release of state money for Alexander from the first day they heard about the contract award say that the governor owes Maine's taxpayers a refund for a report they say is designed simply to justify his own opposition to Medicaid expansion.

"So the Republicans and the governor had the opportunity to do the right thing a number of months ago when we put a bill in to cancel the contract at that point, they were standing by Gary Alexander and the governor and defending the work," says House Speaker Mark Eves. "And what we have said since Day One, and what we've been calling on for six months, is some accountability so that their taxpayer dollars are appropriately spent."

House Republican Leader Ken Fredette says he and other GOP lawmakers continue to believe that the report was a good investment to assess the future costs of the state's welfare system under expansion. But Fredette also says that the use of unattributed sources poses problems for the state.

"What about the lack of citations and what not - I think it's a problem," Fredette said. "I think if it's a serious enough problem in the chief executive's mind, I think he'll take the appropriate action to address that."

Outside the State House, LePage's two opponents in the fall governor's race say LePage's insistence on hand-picking Alexander to produce campaign fodder at taxpayers' expense demonstrates flawed leadership. Lizzy Rineholt, communications director for Democratic challenger Mike Michaud, says it's about time LePage started thinking about a refund from Alexander.

"Congressman Michaud has been urging Gov. LePage to ask for taxpayers' money back and we're glad that he's finally listening," Rineholt says, "because the deeply flawed and controversial Alexander report is nothing more than a case study in government waste."

And independent challenger Eliot Cutler says LePage's involvement with Alexander has been nothing short of a disaster from the beginning - largely because of the consultant's known credibility issues.

"It was a fraud then, it's a fraud now and it's only the frosting on the cake - the plagiarism - that's finally led this governor to try and get some of Maine's money back," Cutler said. "It's a day late and a dollar short."

At the LePage campaign, spokesman Brent Littlefield, says the governor's liberal opponents have a tendency to seek media attention using any means possible.