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April 12, 2013

Staff File Photo

Lawyers who represent workers say Gov. Paul LePage has been interfering with the federally governed unemployment process, and have asked the Maine Attorney General to investigate. The LePage administration denies any wrongdoing.

Lawyers to AG: Investigate LePage for obstruction

By Steve Mistler
smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Lawyers who represent workers in unemployment benefits cases plan to ask Maine's attorney general to investigate claims that Gov. Paul LePage pressured unemployment hearing officers to rule in favor of business owners over workers.

Democratic lawmakers and the union representing state employees also voiced concerns Thursday about a meeting that LePage and several staff members held March 21 at the Blaine House with about eight hearing officers and their supervisors.

The meeting should never have happened, said David Webbert, president of the Maine Employment Lawyers Association.

"It's troubling on many levels," he said. "It erodes people's confidence in the process and gives the impression that the process is rigged."

Peter Steele, a spokesman for LePage, disputed claims that LePage sought to sway the officers. He said those allegations were made by disgruntled employees, and that the governor neither threatened nor scolded the hearing examiners.

The accusations surfaced in a story first reported by the Sun Journal in Lewiston. The paper, citing several anonymous sources, detailed the meeting to which LePage summoned the employees of the Department of Labor.

According to the Sun Journal, several who attended the lunch meeting said LePage scolded about eight administrative hearing officers and their supervisors for deciding too many cases in favor of employees.

The hearings determine whether a business has to pay unemployment benefits. They are conducted within the Bureau of Unemployment by administrative hearing officers, who act as adjudicators in disputes between businesses and employees who have been laid off or fired.

The officers, many of whom are lawyers, hold federally funded jobs and their rulings are governed by federal guidelines.

The newspaper did not identify the hearing officers who complained because they sought anonymity for fear of losing their jobs or facing retribution by the LePage administration. The paper said it contacted more than a dozen sources to confirm the meeting. 

Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette and John Butera, a senior member of LePage's staff, both attended. They said Thursday that the meeting was called to fix what the administration described as "systematic inconsistency" in the adjudication of claims appeals.

They said allegations that LePage was threatening during the meeting are untrue. 

"The governor wanted to engage them," Paquette said. "This was an education piece for him, too. ... (The hearing officers) all spoke. If they were intimidated, they sure didn't show it." 

Butera said, "What the governor wanted is consistency, so that everyone is being treated the same." 

The administration provided a copy of a memo that served as discussion material for the meeting. Before the meeting, LePage made a series of handwritten notes on the memo, underlining issues that he thought were most important.

He highlighted a section noting that the current law does not weigh whether a benefit claimant did something "intentionally or recklessly" to get injured. 

"This is critical," LePage wrote. "Employees have to be made accountable for their actions."

The memo, with names and other parties redacted, cited hearings in which officers did not allow information provided by employers. Hearing officers have discretion to include or discard evidence.

Labor Department officials said hearing officers sometimes exclude information if it's duplicative, can't be proven or is irrelevant to the appeal. 

Administration officials said LePage questioned during the meeting why some of the information hadn't been allowed as evidence. 

Butera said he didn't know if any of the hearing officers at the meeting were involved in the cases in the memo. 

"Maybe some of them thought they were being called out," he said. "I don't know." 

Butera and Paquette were asked Thursday why the governor participated in the meeting. Butera said the governor is a "hands-on" official who wants to understand the issue. He said the staff held the gathering at the governor's mansion to create a non-threatening atmosphere. 

"(LePage) didn't do anything wrong," Paquette said. "We didn't do anything wrong."

Webbert, the lawyer for the association representing workers, said any political pressure in the unemployment appeal hearing process violates the statute calling for fair hearings.

"It's an obstruction of the administering of justice," he said. "It strikes me as potentially criminal. I would think it would violate the federal government's standard for the hearing process."

Webbert said Thursday evening that he is gathering signatures from the 50 or so attorneys in his organization to submit with a letter to Attorney General Janet Mills, requesting an investigation.

A spokesman for Mills said Thursday evening that Webbert had contacted the office's investigative bureau but had not filed a formal request.

Tim Belcher, legal counsel for the Maine State Employees Association, the union representing state workers, said several hearing officers who attended the meeting at the Blaine House had contacted the union, to which they belong, seeking protection. He said the union had not yet determined how it would proceed, but none of the hearing officers had reported retaliation for "exercising their First Amendment rights" in speaking to the media.

"While we're unfortunately not surprised, it doesn't make this any less outrageous," Belcher said. "We're evaluating this from a number of legal perspectives." 

Belcher said allegations that LePage requested that the hearing officers side with businesses "appears on its face to be unlawful.

"They've been told to skew the results of the decisions in cases that are subject to state and federal law," Belcher said. "So the question is, how do they do their jobs now?

"Hopefully the administration and the department will realize their error and take affirmative steps to distance themselves from what appears to be a very serious overreach," he said.

Democratic legislative leaders said Thursday that the allegations are troubling.  

"If this is true, the governor's actions represent political interference and intimidation," said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. "We are calling on Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette to repudiate these alleged remarks and ensure that the state employees can continue to serve as impartial judges in these hearings."

Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, said the allegations are "appalling."

"We owe unemployed workers a fair shot," said Patrick, co-chairman of the Legislature's Labor Committee. "We don't need someone thinking he's a dictator intimidating unbiased arbitrators of the law. It's appalling this is happening in the U.S. You expect this sort of thing in communist China, but not in Maine."

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

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter:@stevemistler





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