The Good Will-Hinckley hiring investigation raises more ethics questions than it answers

Before people start gathering feathers and heating up tar, the words that are to follow do not in any way endorse the undesirable behaviors of Gov. Paul LePage. The archive of my blog and previous contributions to Bangor Daily News are a paean to all that is wrong with LePage’s conduct.

But underneath the bluff and bluster and inappropriateness is something of a divining rod. It’s just that when LePage senses water, rather than carefully drilling a well, he drops a bomb — and poisons the water supply.

I do not at all agree with his response to Good Will-Hinckley hiring Rep. Mark Eves as president. But, at the same time, facts uncovered during the Nov. 12 Government Oversight Committee hearing suggest the hiring process was not necessarily the clean, well-run process LePage’s opponents would like us to think it was.

It may even be that part of the reason Eves emerged as the frontrunner was because he received counsel as to what the board was looking for — counsel that the other candidates didn’t receive.

I listened to most of the hearing online, and when the hearing broke for lunch, I emailed a colleague to say much the same thing the BDN editorial board said in its recent editorial: There’s still no smoking gun. I took it a little further than the BDN editorial board did, though, and added that the testimony was raising interesting ethical questions beyond those of just the governor’s behavior. For those not beholden to either party, this case looks like another tale of the pot and the kettle.

It’s totally clear to everyone who testified before the Government Oversight Committee and to anyone paying any attention at all to Maine politics that LePage did not like Good Will-Hinckley hiring Eves to run the school. LePage himself has made this clear repeatedly. What is not clear is who specifically linked the idea of withdrawn support directly to withdrawn funding.

The key players who testified at the Government Oversight Committee hearing tossed the possibility of providing the link around like a hot potato, in the end tossing it right back to the committee members.

Co-chairs Roger Katz, R-Augusta (left) and Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, listen to testimony before the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015, in Augusta concerning the Good Will-Hinckley affair. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Co-chairs Roger Katz, R-Augusta (left) and Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, listen to testimony before the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015, in Augusta concerning the Good Will-Hinckley affair. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

And while they were playing hot potato with the link, facts emerged that made the whole hiring process suspect, almost inadvertently justifying LePage’s concerns that cronyism was involved in the hire. There’s an “oops,” and it’s an oops that’s not getting much attention.

And it probably won’t because liberals and conservatives love to talk about the cronyism of the other party but never their own. Neither side is willing to admit it goes both ways.

Among the folks who testified that day was Bill Brown, chairman of the board of Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, the charter school operating under the Good Will-Hinckley umbrella. Brown is Eves’ chief budget adviser and participated as a board member in the selection process. In the hearing he admitted to being the one who told Eves about the job and recommended he apply.

Under questioning from Sen. Roger Katz, Brown admitted that he should have had another board member represent Maine Academy of Natural Sciences on the selection committee, which was made up of both Good Will-Hinckley and Maine Academy of Natural Sciences board members. Because he didn’t, his testimony was full of clarifications about to what extent he recused himself from which parts of the process. For example, he was present for the Eves interview but did not participate. However, he did participate in the interviews of the other five finalists.

The most telling testimony, however, was when Brown admitted to advising Eves in regards to his resume and which parts would be of more interest to the selection committee. When a committee member asked if he had provided the same information to the other five finalists, he replied that he hadn’t. When asked why, he replied that he hadn’t been asked.

Let’s recap.

  • Six finalists were selected for a $120,000 position at the helm of a struggling Maine organization.
  • One of the finalists was advised by a personal employee and a board member representative on the selection committee as to what criteria were most important in relation to his resume.
  • The others were not given the same counsel.
  • The finalist who was given the advice emerged as the chosen candidate.

Even without considering Eves’ clout in the government funding arena, the hiring process itself is now suspect in terms of fairness to the other participants. Especially considering that much has been made of Eves’ qualifications as compared with those of other candidates and previous presidents, including during the Nov. 12 hearing.

Which isn’t to say that Eves wasn’t the most qualified (though we have no way of knowing) or that he isn’t a good man of integrity (all evidence suggests he is). Nor is it to say that Good Will-Hinkley isn’t a beloved organization that most Mainers probably want to see succeed.

It is to say that the conduct and viability of the boards of organizations that receive large sums of public money should be on the concern radar of taxpayers. The conduct of the board and the reactions of board members and reactions of “sources close to the GWH board” played a role in this mess.

I wish LePage had just kept his mouth shut and let the hire go through. Then he could have called for a thorough investigation into the hiring process. This hypothetical investigation may have uncovered the aforementioned unfairness or what Katz referred to as the wisdom of the selection process or the lack thereof. It might have highlighted the mechanisms working the revolving door between elected officials and the organizations that benefit from government dollars.

LePage might have tapped into a well of useful information for taxpayers. Instead his conduct became the story rather than the issues at hand.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.