Tag Archives: Michael Costa

Grüberdämmerung

Ah, Jonathan Gruber, the gift that keeps on taking.

The latest twist in this uncomic opera: Auditor Doug Hoffer has examined Gruber’s invoices for consulting work on behalf of the Shumlin adminstration, and found them seriously wanting.

In Hoffer’s words, his review of documents “raised questions about Dr. Gruber’s billing practices and the State’s monitoring and enforcement of particular contract provisions.” More:

Dr. Gruber’s invoices referred only to “consulting and modeling” and offered no details about specific tasks. In the broadest sense, those three words describe the work performed, but such generalities do not appear to satisfy the intent of the contract.

It’s like taking a math test where you’re asked to show your work, and you turn in a sheet with “WORK” in big letters on an otherwise blank page.

Hoffer further states that top Shumlin officials Robin Lunge and Michael Costa “were aware of the need for more details in the invoices, but approved them nonetheless. … [they] had an obligation to request additional detail from Dr. Gruber, and they failed to do so.”

Gruber’s first and second invoices raise suspicion because each showed the same round number of hours worked (100 for Gruber and 500 for research assistants). Hoffer judges the round figures, and the fact that two invoices totaled exactly the same, “implausible.” He concludes that the administration “ignored the obvious signs that something was amiss.”

To me, this is the real Gruber scandal. The conservative shitfit over a handful of intemperate remarks — made during a period of years in which Gruber must have spoken on the record hundreds of times — was nothing more than political opportunism by the opponents of health care reform. But this?

Even if Gruber was invoicing to the best of his ability, it certainly reveals shoddy management by the Shumlin administration. Which is, unfortunately, of a piece with the administration’s general performance on health care reform. Did they take a relaxed approach to spending money because so much of it came from the federal coffers? Perhaps.

Here’s another fact that reinforces my interpretation. Late last year, Gruber submitted two more invoices. In an email to Hoffer earlier this month, according to VTDigger’s Morgan True, Lunge wrote that the administration was “no longer satisfied with the level of detail provided” in those later invoices.

Why “no longer”? Because Hoffer was examining the invoices and they knew they’d be embarrassed? If there’s another explanation, I’d like to hear it.

There are other problems, as reported by True: Tax documents appear to show that Gruber actually paid his research assistant far less than the amount received from Vermont for the RA’s work. DId he pocket the rest? Did the state’s lax oversight let him get away with it?

I’m a liberal, and I’m strongly in favor of universal access to health care. Our current system is an expensive stinkin’ mess, and no amount of wrongdoing by Gruber or others will convince me that reform is a mistake. But in my book, my fandom only feeds my desire for sound management by those we’ve empowered to enact reform on our behalf, and with our dollars.

The Gruber fiasco makes me wonder about the administration’s oversight of all the other consultancies associated with the reform effort. And, for that matter, its handling of the entire process.

Hoffer has referred his findings to Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who says Gruber’s invoicing raises “major questions.” He says he will meet with administration officials to see “what evidence and records are available to justify the billing amount.”

On behalf of health care reform supporters, and those who backed Peter Shumlin because of his promises to institute unversal coverage, all I can say is I hope there are no more shoes to drop. I fear that we’re only just getting our first peek inside the closet.

No smoking guns in the Gruber file

Now I know how Neal Goswami’s been spending his spare time lately:

The Vermont Press Bureau obtained nearly 2,400 pages of emails between Jonathan Gruber and state officials that detail the work Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist, has been doing for the administration.

Woof. That’s a lot of emails to wade through. The result of all that work was published in the Sunday edition of the Mitchell Family Organ. (The article is paywalled; if you don’t subscribe, Get Thee To A Library.)

So what did he find? More impolitic comments about stupid voters and conservative pundits? Arrogant pronouncements over how he’s gonna pull the wool over our eyes?

Er, no.

Emails… highlight the administration’s work since the summer preparing a long-awaited financing plan for Gov. Peter Shumlin’s proposed universal, publicly financed health care plan.

… In a July 7 email to Michael Costa, Shumlin’s deputy director of health reform and the tax expert spearheading the administration’s financing plan, Gruber expressed unbridled enthusiasm at the opportunity to help the state craft a single-payer health care plan.

In short, the emails depict a top-shelf policy expert avidly engaged in a very difficult project, and using his economic model to test countless iterations of single-payer.

And seeing Vermont as a ground-breaking opportunity: “I think we have a chance to make history here,” he said in a July email.

Goswami describes a lengthy, painstaking process that seems to validate Gov. Shumlin’s claims that he couldn’t release his plan because it wasn’t ready yet. This was, the emails show, a long, tough slog. Which still continues; reform chief Robin Lunge expressed confidence that the plan would be ready by late December, but only after an all-out effort.

It’s a fascinating read if you’re a policy wonk. But it doesn’t provide provide any new evidence for legitimate attacks on Gruber or single-payer.

Which is not to say there’s no room for illegitimate, partisan attacks:

Many emails that included details of the administration’s plan were redacted, with the administration citing executive privilege.

“Aha!”, I can almost hear Darcie Johnston crying. “Redacted! Cover-up!”

Partisans will certainly look at it that way. Especially since, according to Goswami, the Shumlin administration had an interesting rationale for adding a provision to Gruber’s contract stating that he “may advise the Governor on policy matters.”

That provision was added, not because Gruber would actually provide any policy advice, but simply to lay the foundation for a claim of executive privilege.

Lunge… said the clause in the contract was included to protect her policy advice to the governor. Gruber has not contributed policy advice to the governor, according to Lunge.

Got that? Lunge generated policy ideas… Gruber ran them through his model… and Lunge used his information to shape her policy ideas. But since she had to give her policy ideas to Gruber, his work must be privileged.

It makes sense, but it also provides fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

And it creates some concerns about government transparency: Lunge told Goswami that “the same provision is also included with other contractors.”

If that’s true, then we ought to be less worried about Jonathan Gruber and single-payer, and more worried about broadening claims of executive privilege.