Feds finishing probe into whether LePage pressured labor officers to be more ‘pro-business’

Posted Dec. 13, 2013, at 12:10 p.m.
Gov. Paul LePage
Kevin Bennett
Gov. Paul LePage Buy Photo

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of a state commission that studied problems with the Maine unemployment claims and appeals process said Thursday that a federal investigation into claims that Gov. Paul LePage pressured unemployment appeals hearing officers to be more “pro-business” is expected to wrap up next month.

Former Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Daniel Wathen and Waterville lawyer George Jabar, who served as co-chairmen of the governor’s Unemployment Blue Ribbon Commission, appeared at a Thursday meeting of the Maine Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

The commission made public Tuesday its recommendations for improving the unemployment claims and appeals process. LePage created the commission in the wake of a Sun Journal report detailing his treatment of unemployment hearing officers at a March luncheon meeting.

LePage had told hearing officers at the luncheon that he had been getting complaints that business owners hadn’t received fair hearings.

But a Sun Journal analysis later found that more former workers than employers had complained to the governor’s office about the unemployment claims and appeals process.

In fact, only 30 of the nearly 400 complaints stacked on LePage’s desk since he took office in January 2011 came from business owners who took issue with the administrative appeals hearing process, the Sun Journal reported.

The blue ribbon commission looked at about 360 unemployment appeals cases that were filed over a nine-month period. The commission considered whether there had been bias in the findings of those cases. It did not look into the governor’s luncheon with hearing officers and left that up to the federal investigation.

The federal investigation was launched in April by the U.S. Department of Labor Office of the Solicitor General after an employment lawyer called on the federal agency seeking confirmation of claims that LePage had pressured administrative hearing officers at the Maine Department of Labor to be more pro-employer in their findings on appeals of claims.

An April 11 report by the Sun Journal cited confidential sources who said LePage had called a mandatory luncheon meeting in March at the Blaine House governor’s mansion where he told them they were doing their jobs poorly. The officers reported that they had felt abused, harassed and bullied by the governor.

Emails released under a Freedom of Access Act request echoed claims made by the hearing officers.

LePage denied the allegations, calling the meeting “cordial” and an effort on his part to ensure fair hearings for all appellants.

LePage’s blue ribbon commission found no evidence of bias against workers or employers who went through Maine’s unemployment claims and appeals process. The commission found the department was understaffed, commission members reiterated Thursday at the OPEGA meeting.

Sun Journal writer Lindsay Tice contributed to this report.

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