A lawyer from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of the Solicitor is expected to be in Augusta to interview unemployment appeals hearing officers through Thursday about allegations that Gov. Paul LePage pressured them to be more pro-business in their findings.
Leticia Sierra had scheduled meetings with hearing officers at the Maine Department of Labor’s Bureau of Unemployment Compensation two weeks ago, but postponed those plans at the last minute, David Webbert, president of the Maine Employment Lawyers Association, said Tuesday. The interviews were rescheduled for this week, likely giving Sierra more time to review records and internal communications prior to her visit from Washington, said Webbert, who called earlier last month for an investigation into the allegations.
Julie Rabinowitz, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Labor, confirmed late Tuesday that Sierra would be interviewing the hearing officers who were summoned by LePage to a mandatory March 21 luncheon. Sierra also plans to talk to other Maine Department of Labor staff who attended the luncheon, including Commissioner Jeanne Paquette, Rabinowitz said.
She also confirmed that Barbara D’Amore, workforce security chief at the U.S. Department of Labor and John Murphy, from the regional employment and training administration in Boston, were at the department Tuesday visiting with Bureau of Unemployment Compensation Director Laura Boyett. The two were there to review unemployment files at the bureau in response to Webbert’s concerns.
D’Amore and Murphy had been to the state agency to meet with Boyett two weeks ago.
Webbert had called on the federal agency to look into reports that LePage had berated roughly eight hearing officers at the March 21 lunch at the Blaine House for finding too many cases in favor of jobless workers. He told them he had been getting complaints that business owners hadn’t gotten fair hearings.
A Sun Journal investigation cited sources in an April 11 report that LePage had called hearing officers at the Division of Administrative Hearings to the governor’s mansion where he told them they were doing their jobs poorly. Afterward, they said they felt abused, harassed and bullied by the governor, unnamed sources told the Sun Journal.
LePage denied the allegations, calling the meeting “cordial” and an effort to ensure fair hearings for all appellants.
LePage was asked a week ago by a Sun Journal reporter about a recent phone conversation with Seth Harris, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor. According to LePage, Harris “said there was no investigation” of the allegations of pressuring the hearing officers, only routine auditing at the state agency. But both of LePage’s statements conflict with Rabinowitz’s confirmations Tuesday.
The hearing officers are the first line of appeals for unemployed Mainers who have filed for unemployment benefits, but were denied. Business owners also can appeal to a hearing officer if they have challenged the state’s decision to grant benefits to former workers.
The role of examiners at the Division of Administrative Hearings is mandated by the federal government. Examiners are paid with federal flow-through money and are required to follow federal guidelines during the hearing process. Their hearings are reviewed quarterly by state supervisors and by the U.S. Department of Labor, where they are scored and rated pass or fail for adherence to “due process.” Maine’s examiners are rated above the national average, statistics show.
Decisions by hearing officers can be appealed to the Unemployment Compensation Commission, a panel of three political appointees. Appeals of those decisions go to Maine courts.