April 25, 2013

Maine legislative panel to consider probe of unemployment controversy

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA - The Legislature's Government Oversight Committee could decide Friday to initiate an investigation into allegations that Gov. Paul LePage pressured unemployment appeals hearing officers during a meeting last month at the Blaine House.

The committee, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, will review the ongoing controversy at 9 a.m. and could order the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the Legislature's watchdog agency, to conduct a probe.

The agency has been involved in several high-profile audits in recent years, involving the Maine Turnpike Authority and the Maine Housing Authority. Both inquiries probed allegations of financial malfeasance.

The claims about the turnpike authority proved true, landing Paul Violette, the former director, in prison for 3½ years for theft.

The turnpike and housing authority investigations centered on reviews of financial records. The controversy over the unemployment hearing officers centers on a lunch meeting on March 21 between LePage and at least eight employees of the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation who adjudicate claims appeals.

Emails obtained by the Portland Press Herald showed that employees in the unemployment bureau felt that the meeting was a "group scolding" and that the administration wanted more pro-business outcomes. The emails corroborated a story in the Lewiston Sun Journal on April 11 quoting anonymous sources at the bureau.  

The newspaper reports were followed by a request for a federal inquiry by an association of attorneys who represent workers. In its complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor, the association claimed that LePage interfered with the fair hearing process. 

The LePage administration has denied the allegations. LePage announced in a written statement last week that he welcomes an investigation by the Legislature's watchdog agency. 

The Government Oversight Committee has the power to subpoena witnesses, so the unemployment bureau's staff could be summoned to testify.

However, Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, a member of the committee and the assistant House majority leader, said Thursday that OPEGA could potentially interview bureau employees while keeping their identities private.

The hearing officers have not lodged an official complaint with Attorney General Janet Mills, a point emphasized by the LePage administration.

David Webbert, the attorney with the Maine Employment Lawyers Association who filed the federal complaint, told the Press Herald recently that the officers he had interviewed were reluctant to approach Mills for various reasons, including fear that going public would interfere with their ability to continue adjudicating hearings. 

The governor responded to the controversy last week by calling for an investigation into the entire unemployment system. He also announced that he would form a special commission to review the system.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com Twitter: @stevemistler

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