AUGUSTA, Maine — Instead of asking for a new investigation of whether Gov. Paul LePage or anyone else exerted improper influence on hearings officers for unemployment claims appeals, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously Friday morning to seek more information about two other probes of Maine’s unemployment system. Committee members did not rule out a future investigation based on what information they receive.
Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, in an April 24 letter asked the Government Oversight Committee, which includes an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, to authorize the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to review what happened at a March 21 Blaine House meeting at which LePage and the chairwoman of the state’s Unemployment Insurance Commission met with hearings officers.
“The [March 21] meeting raises significant questions concerning the proper balance between the need to protect the integrity of the hearing process from political influence and the administration’s interest in addressing concerns raised by the public relating to the operation of the unemployment system as a whole,” Kruger, House chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, wrote.
Hearings officers who attended that meeting told the Lewiston Sun Journal that, as a result of the meeting, they felt pressured to side with employers in determining benefit claims. LePage denied that he sought to influence the hearings officers, then announced plans to create a blue ribbon commission to investigate Maine’s entire unemployment compensation system. The U.S. Department of Labor also is reviewing aspects of how the Maine Department of Labor deals with unemployment compensation.
After approximately 90 minutes of discussion Friday, all members of the Government Oversight Committee who were present voted for a motion by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, to have OPEGA Executive Director Beth Ashcroft contact the U.S. Department of Labor and the co-leaders of the blue ribbon commission and report back to the committee in two weeks with information about whether their work will address the question of whether anyone attempted to exert undue influence on the hearings officers, what time frames those investigations will follow and whether the legislative committee would have access to details of their work.
Committee members Katz, Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, and Rep. David Cotta, R-China, were not present at the time of the vote on the motion. They have until the end of Friday to weigh in, but their votes would not change the outcome of the decision.
When it meets in two weeks, the committee plans to review the responses that Ashcroft receives from federal officials and the commission’s leaders, Daniel Wathen and George Jabar, to determine whether to order OPEGA to launch its own probe of the March 21 meeting or other potential instances in which government officials were subjected to attempts at improper influence.
Kruger’s letter also asked that OPEGA investigate the need for “legislation, governmental action or any other measure needed to strengthen and improve the structures of accountability and independence” between the governor’s office, the Department of Labor, its division of administrative hearings and the Unemployment Insurance Commission.
During discussion of Kruger’s request, committee members echoed his desire to “help sort rumor from fact and reassure the public that concerns can and will be addressed through proper channels.”
“I’m looking for a way to get this out of the headlines and looking for solutions,” said Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan.
Some Republicans on the committee, including Rep. Paul Davis of Sangerville, questioned whether it’s appropriate for a legislative committee to initiate an investigation of the executive branch, but Democrats countered that OPEGA routinely reviews all aspects of state government.
Committee members also quibbled over how using the word “perceived” in reference to improper influence should factor in any investigation.
Democrats and Republicans agreed on the need to eliminate the appearance of partisanship in determining legislative action on allegations that LePage or others in his administration attempted to influence the administrative hearings officers, whose salaries are federally funded. Soliciting information from the blue ribbon commission and U.S. Department of Labor seemed to satisfy those concerns.
“I would be willing to be supportive to get feedback from one or both [investigating entities],” said Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting. “Depending on feedback, I would then consider whether to have this committee authorize an investigation.”
Committee members also debated the scope of a potential investigation.
“I want to know the answer to the question of what took place during the meeting on March 21,” Kruger said. “I want a quick answer to a simple question.”
However, other committee members suggested broadening the focus of any investigation to explore possible legislative remedies and reduce the perception that it’s personal.
“This is not about the governor. It’s about the integrity of government,” Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the committee’s Senate co-chairwoman, said.
A group of labor attorneys also requested an investigation into whether LePage or any of his staff acted improperly by calling the hearings officers to the March 21 meeting at the governor’s mansion.