The Maine State Housing Authority has such an off-putting name that it prefers to use a pseudonym. It calls itself MaineHousing, with the words mashed together to indicate that, even though it's a mindless bureaucracy, it's still cool. Or, possibly, that it doesn't know how to use the space bar.
From 2005 until earlier this year, MaineHousing was run by Dale McCormick — a former Democratic legislator, congressional candidate, and state treasurer. Since the 1980s, McCormick has forged a career in Maine politics promoting gay rights, vocational training for women, access to health care, and other mainstays of the liberal agenda.
She also proved more than willing to engage in bare-knuckle fights with political heavyweights. Her management style was autocratic, stopping just this side of dictatorial. She was so obnoxious — even to members of her own party — that former Democratic Governor John Baldacci hesitated for months before reluctantly reappointing her to a second four-year term.
The criticism wasn't limited to her style. McCormick also caught flack for using MaineHousing as a tool to advance her pet issues. She gave preference to contractors who offered health insurance to their employees — even though that increased the cost of projects. She preferred to rehabilitate historic buildings for low-income housing — even though that was more expensive than new construction. She invested in pricey alternative energy and bungled energy efficiency efforts that failed to lower heating or electricity bills. And she employed a politically connected non-profit agency to handle inspections of some MaineHousing-subsidized units — even after it turned out significant violations were being ignored.
When Republicans assumed control of the governorship and Legislature in 2010, they were eager to fire McCormick. There were only two problems. One was a law that said the MaineHousing director could only be canned for gross dereliction of duty. The other was that the GOP turned the job of publicly vilifying McCormick over to new State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin.
If McCormick's personality was as abrasive as sandpaper, Poliquin came off like an industrial sandblaster. He was accused by Democrats of engaging in a "witch hunt," of exaggerating the problem, of politicizing a nonpartisan program. The recent release of internal emails from Poliquin, MaineHousing board members, and the Maine Heritage Policy Center shows those charges were accurate.
After the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a bill in March allowing the new regime to dismiss McCormick, she acknowledged reality and resigned. In the meantime, the state Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability was investigating questionable spending she'd authorized.
Documents the anti-McCormick crowd turned up showed MaineHousing had given money to theater groups, a liberal think tank, a massage therapist, and martial-arts studios. There was also over $57,000 in purchases of Hannaford gift cards. With the Maine Turnpike Authority scandal still fresh in the public's mind (maybe they should have renamed it MainePike), even an objective observer could be excused for suspecting activities falling somewhere between inept and illegal.
The OPEGA investigation, released in May, indicated the former. Of the $4.3 million in expenditures the office examined, "there were no indications of fraud." But there were plenty of indications of sloppy bookkeeping, questionable decision-making and poor management. Such as:
-- $128,000 spent on sponsorships and donations to the Great Falls Balloon Festival, Equality Maine, the Children's Discovery Museum, and dozens of other entities with no connection to financing housing.