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Maine Oil Company’s Closing Hits LIHEAP Clients And Others

February 8, 2011 -- When a Maine oil company abruptly shut its doors on January 22, state LIHEAP administrators found themselves in the dark about whether clients had received fuel oil the program had paid for.

And they weren’t alone. In the days that followed, the Maine attorney general received approximately 350 complaints—from LIHEAP clients and other customers—about the company, Thibeault Energy of Brunswick. Officials said this week that at least 400 Thibeault customers prepaid for fuel oil that was never delivered.

Also this week, Gov. Paul LePage called a meeting of LIHEAP administrators, state officials, and representatives of area propane and oil companies to discuss the Thibeault issue.

The meeting was closed to the public and the press, and Thibeault officials weren’t invited. But according to press reports this week, federal officials said they wouldn’t confirm or deny that the company is being investigated to determine whether it could face a lawsuit over the LIHEAP money.

Maine officials said they are still trying to obtain the company’s financial records to determine whether any state laws were broken.

According to Kirsten Figueroa, director of Energy and Housing Services at MaineHousing (Maine State Housing, the LIHEAP grantee), her agency sent approximately $20,000 to Thibeault on behalf of 40 LIHEAP-eligible clients, but she doesn’t know whether Thibeault delivered the oil. However, she added, her agency was able to contact the 40 people and asked them to choose another vendor.  "That really worked out," she noted.

MaineHousing cannot reissue benefits to LIHEAP clients who have not received their 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.

In addition to emergency benefits, LIHEAP clients should expect to receive more heating assistance in the near future. Maine received another $23 million in LIHEAP funding in mid-January.

MaineHousing has scheduled a screening this weekend for former Thibeault Energy customers who think they may qualify for the federal assistance. And five credit unions in Maine have offered year-long no-interest loans of up to $2,000 to Thibeault customers who can show that they lost money when the company closed.

The Thibeault Energy case is not the first time LIHEAP administrators in Maine have had to try to track down funds. According to MaineHousing director Dale McCormick, six companies that had been paid $366,000 in LIHEAP money last year ran into various kinds of trouble. Administrators are still trying to determine how much money those companies owe.

"In each case we have been having, still having, we have had a bankruptcy lawyer hang up on us, we have had trouble getting to those books  to determine what benefits were paid and what benefits are still owed", McCormick said.

LIHEAP has instituted new procedures for companies it has concerns about, authorities said. Those companies will be asked to deliver the oil first, before they get paid.

Meanwhile, David Sinclair, an attorney on the Bath City Council, said he’ll offer free legal assistance to Thibeault Energy customers who prepaid for winter heating oil but did not receive their allotments.

“It’s the worst time of year and possibly the worst place in the country, other than maybe Alaska, to be caught without home heating oil,” Sinclair said.

In fact, Maine’s statewide average price for heating oil rose for the 10th consecutive week, and is 67 cents per gallon higher than during the same time last year. The week’s average price of $3.53 for a gallon of No. 2 heating oil was the highest in Maine since October 2008.

John Kerry, director of Maine’s Office of Energy Independence and Security, said consumer demand and instability in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East led to the higher prices.

Maine is not the only state that has seen higher heating oil prices. In Connecticut, for example, a recent average price of $3.03 per gallon was 30 cents higher than the price at the same time last year. And New York’s average price this week of $3.67 per gallon was 71 cents per gallon higher than last year.

Source: Maine, Connecticut, and New York newspapers and television stations.