ACLU rips LePage for immigrant confidentiality breach

Good morning from Augusta, where questions continue to swirl about how a Boston newspaper learned that an immigrant who radicalized in Maine and died fighting for the Islamic State in Lebanon received welfare benefits while he was here.

As you know by now if you’ve been paying attention, the Boston Herald reported last Tuesday that 38-year-old Adnan Fazeli, formerly of Freeport, collected food stamps and cash through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program until he traveled to Turkey in 2013. Fazeli was killed in January of 2015 during a firefight.

Gov. Paul LePage and other administration officials have denied that he or anyone in his administration told the Herald that Fazeli’s family was receiving welfare benefits, which is a violation of federal privacy laws. LePage and the Department of Health and Human Services said they are launching a review of “any refugee-related programs” administered in Maine in order to “determine whether the state should continue participating” in those programs.

LePage granted the Boston newspaper an interview, which has become exceedingly rare for Maine’s chief executive.

“This is very embarrassing to the state of Maine and I point the finger at the president and say, ‘how did this happen?'” said LePage to the newspaper. “If the federal government doesn’t do their job we don’t know what we’re getting.”

Making it harder for refugees and some immigrants to qualify for public assistance programs, including food stamps, TANF and state funding for General Assistance, is something LePage and some Republicans in the Legislature have been working toward for years. It’s likely a debate that will continue in January when the new Legislature is seated, but that’s a separate issue from the question of who disclosed that Fazeli was receiving benefits.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine ripped the LePage administration for the breach.

“Who knows whom the next target will be — the elderly, people with disabilities?,” said Alison Beyea, executive director of the organization. “No one should have to worry about their personal lives being leaked to the press anytime the administration wants to score political points. But if it happened to one family, it could happen to any of us.”

LePage and DHHS officials said Friday that they did not disclose the information. LePage Communications Director Peter Steele in email communications with the Bangor Daily News on Friday criticized the BDN for its “zeal to implicate the governor in a crime” and for citing Maine Equal Justice Partners, a group that advocates for low-income Mainers, as a legal authority.

In response to a series of questions and follow-up questions, Steele gave no indication that any probe is afoot to determine who is responsible for the illegal information breach. The Herald story attributed the information to “state officials.”

“Is there any effort to determine how that information got out?” the BDN asked Steele.

“As any reporter or editor worth his or her salt would know it is virtually impossible to determine who an unnamed source is,” wrote Steele, who suggested we ask the Boston Herald to reveal its source. We did and there was no response.

“With such newfound concern over confidential sources, we certainly hope the BDN will reveal all of their unnamed sources in future stories,” wrote Steele.

Whether another shoe will drop in this matter remains to be seen. It seems that the federal government would be the entity to decide whether to enforce a federal law.

What could that lead to? Possibly restrictions on the state’s authority to administer the programs, which would be exactly what LePage, who last month threatened to withdraw Maine from the food stamp program, is trying to accomplish if he is not given full authority to administer the programs the way he wants. — Christopher Cousins

Federal assistance team leaves Maine

A federal Economic Development Assessment Team has concluded a three-day deployment to Maine during which it sought ways to ease the state’s ongoing loss of its paper-making industry. The team is expected to report back findings and recommendations within a few weeks.

Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins and Rep. Bruce Poliquin said they are fully behind the effort.

“The EDAT is not a silver bullet to the challenges Maine’s forest economy faces,” they said in a joint statement on Friday. “We believe, however, that it is an important first step and the beginning of a longer-term process among industry, local stakeholders and federal agencies that can revitalize this critical pillar of our economy, support future investment and innovation in the forest sector and assist rural communities across the state.”

LePage declined to work with the team until the federal government reconsiders tariffs on Canadian paper imports, which the administration said harms businesses with operations in Maine.

House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, a Democrat from Skowhegan who chairs the Legislature’s Pulp and Paper Caucus and co-chaired the Commission to Study the Economic, Environmental and Energy Benefits of the Maine Biomass Industry, criticized the LePage administration from sitting the process out.

“No single one of us has the solution all by ourselves, so we need the governor and his staff to join us to get this done,” said McCabe in a written statement to reporters. “We all need to work together as a team to fight for these jobs.”

McCabe is challenging incumbent Republican Rod Whittemore for a Maine Senate seat this year.

The EDAT team is expected to propose a strategy for helping the forest industry recover and transition over the coming months or years. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • Ice cream for veterans: Ann LePage, the governor’s wife, will host her sixth annual Maine Military Families Ice Cream Social at the Blaine House on Tuesday beginning at 4 p.m. The event is open to currently serving military families and Gold Star Families. Children who attend will receive free back-to-school supplies, have the chance to participate in a number of games and be able to eat ice cream. To attend, you must register by clicking here by the end of today. Keyword: ice cream.
  • Prayer tour in Augusta: Evangelist Franklin Graham and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association are conducting prayer rallies in all 50 states this year in the “Decision America Tour.” Graham has not endorsed in the presidential race but met with Donald Trump last week during photo ops in flood-ravaged Louisiana. Graham’s prayer meeting in Maine will kick off at noon on Tuesday at Capitol Park, which is across the street from the State House in Augusta.
  • LePage takes town hall tour to Eves’ town: The governor’s next town hall forum is scheduled to run from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday at Noble High School on Main Street in North Berwick. House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat who sparred regularly with LePage during the past four years and who is embroiled in a legal fight with him over what Eves and his legal team describe as LePage’s efforts to “blackmail” Good Will-HInckley officials into firing him, represents North Berwick. Term limits prevent Eves, who is in the midst of his own statewide “listening tour” focused on elder housing issues, from seeking re-election.

Reading list

Meditate, it’s just an election

Watching state or national politics in this era of division and hostility can be hard on your inner peace, if you have any to begin with. Sister Jenna, a Washington, D.C.-based renowned yogi and believer in world peace, is leading a national “Meditate the Vote” effort.

“We need all people to be treated equally and to do that we must find the peace within ourselves through reflection,” said Sr. Jenna in a release. Find more details by clicking here. Here’s your soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.