Employment lawyers’ group seeks federal investigation of LePage

Posted April 17, 2013, at 11:46 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A group of lawyers that represents the jobless seeking unemployment benefits in Maine called on federal officials to investigate allegations that Gov. Paul LePage pressured appeals hearing officers to find more cases in favor of employers.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the same matter to determine whether it will launch a probe of its own.

A Sun Journal investigation cited sources in a report last week that LePage had called Department of Labor employees to a mandatory March 21 luncheon and scolded them for finding too many unemployment-benefit appeals cases in favor of workers. They were told they were doing their jobs poorly. Afterward, they said they felt abused, harassed and bullied by the governor.

David Webbert, president of the Maine Employment Lawyers Association, sent a six-page letter Monday to federal officials at the U.S. Department of Labor urging an “immediate investigation” of LePage and “other high-level officials for violations of federal laws requiring the impartial and prompt administration of unemployment insurance benefits.”

In his letter to Gay Gilbert, administrator at the Office of Unemployment Insurance Employment and Training Administration, and Daniel Petrole, deputy inspector general at the Office of Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Labor, Webbert outlined the group’s greatest concerns, which include reports of the following:

— Administrative hearing officers at the Bureau of Unemployment received criticism about appeals decisions favoring workers soon after LePage took office.

— LePage summoned those same officers to a mandatory luncheon meeting at the Blaine House where he talked to them about the hearing process.

— LePage passed along complaints he had fielded from employers who had “given up on the appeals system because they believe it is weighted against them.

— Asked about a 30-day federal deadline for holding an appeals hearing and what to do if an employer were to argue that more time was needed to prepare a case, LePage, who is not a lawyer, said that if allowing additional time for employers meant missing the federal deadline, “so be it.”

— LePage’s office released a memo that cited specific cases heard by administrative hearing officers that constituted a violation of state law.

— During the meeting, LePage said he had called a Maine judge into a meeting to discuss the merits of a specific case.

Webbert said the information in the Sun Journal investigative report is based on “undisputed facts and highly credible sources. It is significant that the permanent hearing officers all earned their just cause, permanent positions with the state in a competitive, merit-based hiring process.”

The administrative hearing officers are paid with federal money through the Maine Labor Department. The officers must follow federal guidelines and their hearings are reviewed quarterly at the U.S. Department of Labor.

Webbert said his group, which is part of a national organization, represents 50 lawyers who specialize in representing employees in employment cases, including claims for unemployment compensation benefits.

Webbert said in his letter that LePage is breaking the federal law that requires a state receiving administrative grants for its Unemployment Compensation program to have “methods of administration” to ensure that eligible claimants are paid promptly “when due.”

LePage is “intentionally interfering with the neutrality and basic fairness of the appeals system in order to favor employers over workers,” Webbert wrote.

LePage’s actions pose “the most serious threat to judicial independence in Maine I’ve seen (in the 22 years) since I’ve been here,” Webbert told the Sun Journal on Tuesday. “For the executive branch to step into the world of specific cases, that’s a fundamental violation of our whole idea of separations of power.”

Through various spokespersons, LePage has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and has called the allegations “outrageous.”

He maintains that he was seeking to make the process fair for both sides after he received repeated complaints from parties about the administrative hearing process, his spokespersons said.

Political appointees who attended the luncheon said the governor attempted to soften the atmosphere by holding the meeting at the Blaine House. They characterized the exchange of ideas between the governor and the hearing officers as “cordial.”

A spokesman at the U.S. Department of Labor’s office of inspector general confirmed his office is aware of the allegations, but declined to comment on any communications received by anyone calling for an investigation. Christopher Seagle, director of congressional liaison and communication for the Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Department of Labor, said his office neither confirms nor denies reports of anyone seeking investigations and of ongoing investigations.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office is aware of the hearing officers’ allegations and is reviewing them, said Timothy Feeley, special assistant to Maine Attorney General Janet Mills.

“We read the allegations in the newspaper articles last week,” Feeley wrote in an email. “This office is making itself available to anyone who was present at the Blaine House meeting who has concerns about what occurred there so that they may be interviewed by the appropriate personnel.”

If any litigation should arise involving a part of state government, the Attorney General’s Office would erect a “firewall” between those within the office who might represent that department and those within the office who might be conducting an investigation of possible wrongdoing, Feeley said, speaking generally about the dual role of the office and not specifically about the Department of Labor case.

Zachary Heiden, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said Tuesday the First Amendment protects “everybody’s right to speak about matters of public importance,” including government employees.

“We’re going to monitor the situation to make sure that everyone’s constitutional rights are upheld” including free speech, he said.

Regarding any undue influence on unemployment benefit appeals hearings, Heiden said: “Part of the right to due process is the right to a neutral decision-maker,” be it a judge or a hearing officer. “A neutral decision-maker is one who bases her decision on the law and on the evidence entered in the case and not on any external factor . . . which compromises the neutrality of a judge or hearing officer.”

Tim Belcher, a lawyer at the Maine State Employees Association, said Tuesday that several state workers who attended LePage’s luncheon have sought legal counsel, concerned about possible retaliation.

His group has taken no formal legal action on the matter, he said.

“We and the hearing officers we represent are very concerned about making sure that people in Maine know that the hearing process is done with the utmost integrity and fairness,” he said. “It’s going to be vitally important to have some objective body that can do a credible investigation come in and find out the facts.”

Judith Meyer, the Sun Journal’s daytime managing editor, contributed to this report.

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