April 18, 2013

LePage: Federal audit just routine

But that contradicts reports that said U.S. officials were probing claims of meddling by the governor and his administration.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Federal labor officials came to Maine this week to conduct a "routine" audit of unemployment cases and look into possible inconsistencies in their handling, the LePage administration said Thursday.

The statement by Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage, challenged earlier reports asserting that U.S. Labor Department auditors were investigating allegations that the governor pressured hearing officers at a March meeting to make pro-business decisions in unemployment appeals.

Bennett said LePage called acting Labor Secretary Seth Harris on Wednesday evening to discuss the audit.

"They agreed to work together to ensure the law would be applied fairly," Bennett said of Harris and LePage. "We are on the same page with the federal government."

A Labor Department spokesman offered limited corroboration of Bennett's account. "I can confirm that acting Secretary Harris spoke with Gov. LePage yesterday, but that's all I can confirm," Ted Fitzgerald said in an email from his Boston office.

LePage and several administration officials summoned eight to 10 unemployment claims hearing officers and their supervisors to a mandatory lunch at the Blaine House on March 21. Since then, sharply contrasting accounts have been given of the purpose and tenor of the meeting.

The Sun Journal newspaper in Lewiston reported that several of the unidentified hearing officers felt they were being pressured to settle unemployment appeals in favor of businesses.

But the administration has said no pressure was applied, and that LePage, concerned about "inconsistencies" in the unemployment benefits process, simply encouraged the officers to handle their jobs in a way that was fair to all parties.

In 2012, state records show that 40 percent of workers fired for alleged misconduct successfully appealed decisions denying them unemployment benefits. The other 60 percent of those cases were settled in favor of the employers. The average weekly unemployment compensation in Maine is $281, according to the state Labor Department.

Two federal auditors met Tuesday and Wednesday with Laura Boyett, director of the state Bureau of Unemployment Compensation. The auditors represent the federal Labor Department's Employment and Training Administration division.

That division, as well as the Labor Department's Office of Inspector General, was contacted Monday by David Webbert, president of the Maine Employment Lawyers Association, a group whose members specialize in representing workers in unemployment compensation cases.

Webbert asked the division and the Inspector General's Office to investigate the allegations of pressure from LePage and other top administration officials. 

"I would be very surprised if the Labor Department doesn't investigate the meeting and the other information that has come up," Webbert said Thursday.

LePage announced Wednesday that he will appoint a special commission to review Maine's unemployment system, recommending an "in-depth look at the state's entire unemployment compensation system to make sure that it is fair and consistent for all Mainers."

Bennett called that, not the March meeting with hearing officers, "the real issue."

Bennett said LePage wants to "ensure hearing officers are adhering to the letter of the law," and he would welcome an investigation of the state system from the Legislature's watchdog arm, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

The administration said that to ensure fairness, the special commission would equitably represent employees and employers. Bennett said it would be made up of Democrats and Republicans, and the governor wouldn't be involved between appointing the commission and receiving its report. 

On Wednesday, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said he wants Attorney General Janet Mills to investigate claims of pressure on hearing officers, quasi-judicial officers who are supposed to be insulated from pressure in order to make objective decisions.

Timothy Feeley, a spokesman for Mills, said Thursday that although Mills would like to hear from hearing officers who met with LePage, none has approached the office.

State House Bureau Writer Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

On Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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