AUGUSTA, Maine — A U.S. Department of Labor investigation that found officials in Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration may have inappropriately used their positions to influence Maine’s unemployment claims appeals process against workers quickly became fodder for election-year politicking on Thursday.
Legislative Democrats and their allies were quick to condemn the LePage administration, with Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson of Allagash, a longtime LePage rival and Democratic candidate for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District seat, calling for his impeachment. Other Democratic lawmakers took a less volatile approach, saying that they are awaiting Friday’s Government Oversight Committee meeting, at which the issue will be addressed.
LePage, in a written statement, said the finding that the state’s unemployment appeals system has not been consistent echoes what he already knew, and allegations against him amount to a partisan attack.
“It is also no surprise that the Obama administration’s Department of Labor is speculating my administration somehow tried to influence the hearing process,” said LePage. “This issue has been politically motivated from the start, starting with Democratic activists in Maine and reaching all the way to the White House.”
At issue is whether LePage held a mandatory luncheon at the Blaine House last March to scold state Department of Labor officials for finding too many unemployment benefit appeals cases in favor of workers, and whether Department of Labor officials pressured its employees.
Within minutes of the report’s release, lawmakers in the House and Senate were distributing copies. While Democrats were quick and unfettered with their reactions, Republican legislators waited until mid-afternoon to share their response to the report. They echoed LePage’s argument that it was a partisan attack launched by the Democratic president in Washington, D.C.
“Democrats are quick to politicize a report from the Obama administration criticizing the governor for his hands-on approach to an unemployment appeals process that many have viewed as being too anti-business.,” House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette of Newport said in a prepared statement. “The substance of this report is more interesting to me, however. It highlights issues that we know have been a problem in Maine’s unemployment system for quite some time.”
Fredette’s statement reinforces themes from LePage’s re-election campaign, namely that the governor takes an aggressive approach to government work and systems put in place under years of Democratic control of state government require major reforms.
The Democratic chairs of the Government Oversight Committee, which has been awaiting the Department of Labor’s findings so they can decide how to proceed, said some of those decisions would be made Friday during the committee’s meeting.
“This letter from the U.S. Department of Labor validates that there is definitely cause for concern and that we were on the right side when asking those tough questions, not just about the meeting at the governor’s house but in the process generally,” said Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, who co-chairs the committee and is also running in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. “This has been on our agenda every single meeting since this happened. Now that we have it, we’re ready to work it out as a committee to figure out what next steps we should take.”
Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, who chairs the Legislature’s Labor Committee, said the Department of Labor’s findings came as little surprise.
“This is a good thing because everyone in Maine knows the governor uses the bully pulpit to express his feelings about his political views and politics,” said Patrick. “After this, I wonder how you can trust the governor to move forward fairly and in an unbiased way. The citizens of Maine expect that whether it’s a Democrat, a Republican or a Green, that we are fair to our businesses and employees.”
Jackson was less guarded in his response.
“I think he should be impeached,” said Jackson of LePage. “The governor thinks he should be the next [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker, but he should be thinking about being the next [impeached and jailed Illinois Gov.] Rod Blagojevich.”
Walker is a Republican. Blagojevich was elected as a Democrat.
Rep. Charles Kruger, D-Thomaston, who co-chairs the Government Oversight Committee and last year requested an investigation into the matter by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Oversight, said the results of the federal investigation reveal a pattern.
“The report speaks for itself,” said Kruger. “I think there’s reason to be concerned about how this ongoing pattern of behavior is affecting transparency in government. I’m not convinced it’s actionable, but I’m not convinced it is not. We need to see what the committee thinks first.”
LePage maintained that he’s done nothing wrong.
“The U.S. Department of Labor review found no evidence of wrong-doing, but uses conjecture and supposition to come to a conclusion that has no basis in fact,” he said. “The focus of my administration is to ensure the appeals process is fair and consistent for both Maine employees and employers.”