December 14, 2013

Federal probe into Maine jobless disputes could be released in January

The investigation followed allegations that Gov. LePage tried to pressure claims adjudicators.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Findings of a federal probe into Maine’s system for unemployment claims disputes could be released in January, says the director of the Legislature’s watchdog agency.

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The exact nature of the federal inquiry is unclear, but it closely followed news reports in which adjudicators said Gov. LePage and his appointee to a high-level appeals board pressured them to decide more cases in favor of businesses.

Gabe Souza / Staff File Photo

Beth Ashcroft, director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, told lawmakers Thursday she had been in contact with U.S. Department of Labor investigators who have reviewed the system following published reports that Gov. Paul LePage met with claims adjudicators in March to upbraid them over a process that he said was broken and biased.

The exact nature of the federal inquiry is unclear, but it closely followed news reports in which the adjudicators said LePage and his appointee to a high-level appeals board pressured them to decide more cases in favor of businesses.

The probe followed an official complaint by David Webbert, president of the Maine Employment Lawyers Association, whose members represent workers who are wrongfully terminated and seek benefits. Webbert said the reports of the governor’s conduct were “just the tip of the iceberg,” and federal investigators would find it “irresistible to pursue allegations.”

The LePage administration says the investigators came to Maine for a routine audit, not to review allegations that the governor tried to influence claims reviewers’ decisions.

Advocates for the unemployed say the spring visit by federal agents stemmed from concerns that LePage sought more rulings that favored employers.

Emails obtained by the Portland Press Herald through a Freedom of Access Act request showed that one of the eight hearing officers described the meeting at the Blaine House as a “group scolding” and said the administration did not appreciate the importance of insulating quasi-judicial hearing officers from “public and political pressures.”

The documents also showed that hearing officers and their supervisors were concerned about such pressures before and after the meeting.

The document request followed an initial report by the Sun Journal in Lewiston that quoted unnamed sources in the Maine Department of Labor saying they felt the governor wanted more rulings for employers.

The more jobless claims or appeals rulings against employers, the more they have to pay into a trust that funds the unemployment benefits program.

The pending federal findings follow the recent release of a blue ribbon commission’s report about the claims system, initiated by the governor. The report contradicted LePage’s claim that the system was biased, but it identified deficiencies in the system and chronic understaffing that could lead to delayed payments for the unemployed or overpayments by employers.

The commission led by Daniel Wathen, former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and George Jabar, a Kennebec County commissioner, included advocates for the unemployed and business interests.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler

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