The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is sitting on millions of dollars meant to help low-income people with children. What’s more, it has gone out of its way to try to spend the money on services prohibited by federal law.

The BDN Maine Focus team recently looked through more than 300 pages of internal emails and other communications from DHHS, received through a Freedom of Access Act request, showing how more than $13 million in misspending took shape under Commissioner Mary Mayhew.

The takeaway is that DHHS officials knew the relevant federal law specified they could only use the $13.4 million in question from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program “for programs and services to children or their families whose income is less than 200 percent of the income official poverty line.”

But they chose, effectively, to ignore it, spending the money instead on services for the elderly, such as Meals on Wheels and in-home care for seniors. These services are certainly worthy of funding — but not funding that’s legally designated for something else.

Sheryl Peavey, the person in the commissioner’s office coordinating changes to block grant spending, received multiple reminders from state finance staff who repeated the law to her and encouraged her to ask the federal government for guidance.

Instead, she justified her way around the law’s restrictions by creating her own, as she put it, “flexibility in interpretation.” She mistakenly claimed that other states spent federal assistance funds in a similar way.

If others used or tried to use $13 million unlawfully, they would be punished. But Peavey and Mayhew have faced no repercussions for their irresponsible and dishonest actions. In fact, Mayhew gave Peavey a promotion in May 2016 to chief operating officer of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The LePage administration has made a point to tout its efforts to catch people using public assistance benefits fraudulently. Recently it sent out a news release lauding the work of DHHS’ fraud investigators who referred 174 criminal cases, representing $1.7 million in alleged theft, for prosecution in 2016.

But the administration shouldn’t pick and choose who it disciplines for misusing funds.

If a business continued to keep on managers who knowingly spent money for purposes that ran afoul of the law, they would likely be fired. They would have lost the trust they needed to do their jobs.

It was only after DHHS faced questions from federal officials and the BDN that the LePage administration returned the $13 million to Maine’s TANF account and funded the elder services instead with state money. But only returning money when caught doesn’t engender confidence or trustworthiness either.

We’re under no illusions that Gov. Paul LePage will punish anyone at DHHS for the illegal transfer. He’s only sought to lambast the reporting that brought several DHHS ill deeds to light, defending the indefensible.

But we do expect public officials to be accountable to the public who pays their salaries.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...