AUGUSTA, Maine — A union lawyer said several Department of Labor workers who attended a luncheon last month hosted by Gov. Paul LePage corroborated allegations published in Thursday’s Sun Journal. That story said unemployment-claim-hearing officers felt pressured by the governor to rule more in favor of employers.
Tim Belcher, a lawyer at the Maine State Employees Association, said workers are concerned about possible retaliation by the state for their candor.
“Obviously, we’re very concerned about protecting their free-speech rights as employees,” Belcher said, applauding them for their courage in stepping forward.
LePage denied the allegations through a spokesman Thursday, calling them “outrageous.”
Peter Steele, LePage’s director of communications, released a statement saying that LePage “simply reminded the staff that they must follow the law, that they should not weigh their decision either for or against employers or employees, and that both sides must be treated equally under the law.”
He said unnamed sources cited by the Sun Journal were “deliberately mischaracterizing the meeting in an attempt to discredit the governor. They are trying to distract attention from the real issue, which is the number of complaints and inconsistencies in the appeals system.”
Belcher said the version of events at the March 21 meeting conveyed by union employees who were there was “outrageous” but “credible.”
Belcher said, “This is a very serious set of allegations.”
If the governor is speaking truthfully, “then let’s figure out a way to sort that out,” Belcher said. “I would think it would be better for the administration to be coming out and clarifying that they absolutely are not going to try to interfere with the independence of the hearing officers.”
The head of the top appeals board at the Department of Labor said in an interview with the Sun Journal on Thursday that unemployment claims officers at a lower level of appeals are “repeatedly” omitting evidence and testimony, which results in unfair hearings.
Jennifer Duddy, chairwoman of the Unemployment Insurance Commission, said she and LePage shared those concerns with hearing officers at the March 21 luncheon LePage hosted at the Blaine House.
Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette said Thursday that she and LePage have fielded many complaints from both business owners and workers who felt the hearing process was flawed.
Duddy and Paquette, who attended the luncheon (Paquette for only half an hour), said they felt LePage’s tone was cordial and his interaction with the hearing officers was a “dialogue.” They said they didn’t get the impression LePage was seeking to influence the outcome of hearing officers’ cases to be more favorable to the business community, as alleged by other sources who said they felt intimidated, harassed and bullied by the governor at that luncheon.
John Butera, LePage’s senior economic adviser, who was at the luncheon, said Thursday: “I’ve been in hundreds of meetings with the governor and I scratched my head this morning when I read that story, and said, ‘Yeah, were issues discussed that might have made someone feel that they weren’t doing their job the right way? Yes.’”
He added, “Still, I came out of that meeting and said, ‘That was good dialogue. There was discussion, there was feedback on both sides and we agreed to look at the rules, the statutes and to try to work together, both the administrative hearing officers and the Unemployment Commission, to figure out a better way to fix the system.’”
Duddy said LePage “particularly emphasized that he wasn’t trying to lobby on behalf of one side or another but wanted to make sure that the laws were properly being followed.”
Paquette suggested the appeals system at her department was broken and ought to be fixed. She said a greater number of people filing appeals have thrown up their hands and said, “Why bother?” after feeling they didn’t get a fair hearing.
Duddy said she and the two other members of the Unemployment Insurance Commission felt there was a troubling trend of appeals that reached them from the Division of Administrative Hearings in which evidence and testimony that should have been considered had been excluded by most of the hearing officers.
All three members of the commission are appointed by the governor: one represents labor, one represents business owners and one — Duddy — has no designation other than chairwoman. Only Duddy was appointed by LePage; the others were previously appointed.
Officers at the Division of Administrative Hearings are not political appointees. Most are lawyers.
Duddy described the split between the two appeals levels as a “disconnect.” When she approached the chief hearing officer, Linda Rogers-Tomer, about the apparent problem, she said she was told the hearing officers “don’t answer to the commission.”
By early March, Duddy said, members of the commission became concerned about a series of administrative hearing cases that had been appealed to the commission starting in mid-December.
She cited 10 cases in which, she and other members of the commission believed, hearing officers had improperly excluded evidence or testimony. Rogers-Tomer agreed with Duddy’s assessment in only one-third of the cases, Duddy said.
Belcher said the hearing officers are required to “maintain their neutrality and independence in terms of decision-making.”
He said the commission has the authority to overturn their decisions or send them back to be reheard.
“But,” he said, the commissioners “don’t get to tell the hearing officers how they should perform their jobs.
Labor leaders on Thursday expressed outrage at the governor’s reported actions.
“The governor’s reported efforts to pressure judges to rule in favor of employers over workers is a gross violation of due process,” Maine AFL-CIO President Don Berry said in a prepared statement. “We applaud these courageous public servants who spoke up to protect the rule of law and see to it that justice is fairly served.”
State lawmakers called on Paquette to condemn LePage’s alleged actions.
If the allegations prove true, “the governor’s actions represent political interference and intimidation,” Maine Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland said.
“We are calling on … Paquette to repudiate these alleged remarks and ensure that the state employees can continue to serve as impartial judges in these hearings,” Alfond said.
House Speaker Mark Eves said Thursday: “These are serious allegations. We are exploring all options to allow hearing officers to do their work independently and ensure fair outcomes for all Maine people.”
Sun Journal Political Editor Scott Thistle contributed to this report.