BRUNSWICK — Maine’s attorney general has received more than 350 complaints from former customers since Thibeault Energy closed on Jan. 22.
Now the outcry has prompted Gov. Paul LePage to schedule a private work session on the oil company for Tuesday, Feb. 8, in Augusta.
The session is closed to the public and the press, but according to Dan Demeritt, LePage’s director of communications, the governor has invited local legislators; representatives of area oil and propane companies; and officials from the Finance Authority of Maine, MaineHousing, the attorney general’s office and community action programs involved in fuel assistance.
Noticeably absent from the list are representatives from Thibeault Energy.
Vivian Thibeault on Wednesday confirmed that no one from the oil company had been invited to the meeting or will be attending.
“I guess we’re all going to have to sit tight and see what happens,” she said when reached by telephone. She declined any further comment about her company.
The governor isn’t the only government official concerned about the oil company’s sudden shutdown. The federal government may also be looking into the case.
According to Kirsten Figueroa, director of Energy and Housing Services at MaineHousing, her agency sent approximately $20,000 to Thibeault. She said there are 40 clients with Thibeault contracts who qualify for the federal low-income heating assistance program, or LIHEAP. MaineHousing is authorized to distribute the money, which is allocated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
While Figueroa knows how much federal money Thibeault received, she is unsure about whether Thibeault delivered any oil to its LIHEAP customers.
“In order to figure that out,” she said, “we need to see (Thibeault’s) books, and there’s nobody answering the phones.”
When asked if MaineHousing could just survey its LIHEAP clients, she said in the past such surveys have been unsuccessful.
“If you are struggling to fill your oil tank, you aren’t always going to remember when your delivery was and when it wasn’t,” Figueroa said.
MaineHousing cannot reissue benefits to LIHEAP clients who have not their received oil from Thibeault, but the agency can allocate $400 of emergency money per client. Regional groups like People’s Regional Opportunity Program (PROP) in Portland handle those requests.
“Everybody that called us today has gotten some help,” said Roger Bondeson, vice president of Housing and Energy Services at PROP.
“This isn’t the first time that somebody has gone out of business quickly and it’s caused a lot of angst, a lot of concern, but in this case we were able to move very quickly,” he said.
In addition to emergency benefits, LIHEAP clients should expect to receive more heating assistance in the near future. Maine received another $23 million in funding from the federal LIHEAP program in mid-January.
For the 40 LIHEAP clients with Thibeault accounts, this is especially good news.
“We were able to contact all of those 40 people and ask them to choose another vendor,” Figueroa said. “That really worked out.”
Thibeault Energy could face a federal lawsuit over the LIHEAP funds. Figueroa said MaineHousing turned over all of its information about Thibeault to Maine’s attorney general and the federal Office of the Inspector General.
She said the OIG “indicated an interest in pursuing this case.” Felicia Jones, a spokeswoman for the OIG at the U. S. Dept. of Energy in Washington, D.C., said she could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.
Assistant Attorney General Linda Conti also declined to comment about whether or not the OIG is looking into Thibeault. As for her own department, she said Maine is still gathering information from former Thibeault customers and is trying to obtain the company’s financial records to determine if the company violated state law.
Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org