The University of Maine is defending the initial award of a $100 million contract to provide renewable energy to its Orono campus after a Portland Press Herald report raised questions about insider influence — but the university is also conducting a new audit of the bidding process.
Last June, a university team chose an affiliate of the Con Edison company as the winning bidder over three other finalists for the multiyear energy contract. That didn’t seal the deal, but meant that Con Ed and the university would enter negotiations over a final contract.
On Sunday, The Press Herald’s Maine Sunday Telegram published an article suggesting that a University of Maine executive, Jake Ward, improperly communicated with and coached ConEd’s team during the bidding process. The story was based on what it called “secret recordings,” including a conference call in which former House Speaker John Richardson asserted that Ward told ConEd officials that the contract had been “set up for you to do well.”
Ward denied having anything to do with the request for proposals, and university officials are sticking by him.
“We made a determination that the information reported in the Press Herald was not credible and was not verifiable. But because of concern [about] the public integrity of our RFP process, we will be reviewing the matter and reviewing the information further with the board’s audit committee, which is an extra step. It’s not a step that would normally occur,” says Jim Thelen, the university’s chief of staff.
The Press Herald article also brought to light some possible connections between University Chancellor James Page and the project. Until 2012, Page was CEO of J.W. Sewall Co., an Old Town engineering firm. The Press Herald reports principals with that company were at one point involved with efforts to purchase the former Old Town Mill.
The mill would provide renewable energy to the university under the ConEd proposal.
Thelen says he will tell the audit committee that Page has no conflict of interest.
“He has no role in the RFP process or approval of the contract. The Board [of Trustees] has to do that. But whether the board or the audit committee determines whether there should be any direct steps to insulate him will be up to that committee,” he says.
Richardson, now a Brunswick lawyer and consultant, did not respond to requests for comment.
The University’s audit committee is set to consider the integrity of the process on Friday.