State committee takes no action on findings that LePage created ‘pressure to be more sympathetic to employers’

Posted Feb. 28, 2014, at 3:08 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 28, 2014, at 5:50 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — State lawmakers on Friday took up a brief discussion of a federal report released Thursday citing inconsistencies in the state’s process of unemployment compensation hearings, but took no action on a request to take up a formal review.

The discussion on whether the federal report warranted further investigation was split along party lines, on what is generally seen as the nonpartisan Government Oversight Committee.

Republican lawmakers said they felt the U.S. Department of Labor findings uncovered inconsistencies that needed correcting, but indicated no interest in pursuing what the report found was improper pressure Gov. Paul LePage exerted on unemployment benefits hearing officers during a Blaine House luncheon last year.

Federal officials said Thursday that Gov. Paul LePage and administration officials interfered with unemployment claims appeals and may have intimidated hearing officers into finding more cases in favor of employers.

The federal report stems from a probe undertaken last year by the Office of the Solicitor into allegations that LePage had berated nearly a dozen employees at the Maine Department of Labor at a March luncheon at the governor’s mansion.

Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, acknowledged the “governor may have overstepped his bounds,” but that his actions brought to light some problems within the unemployment compensation hearing process. He said he saw that as a good thing.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, chastised people outside the Government Oversight Committee for “suggesting that some action should be taken against the governor,” calling that inappropriate and premature.

Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the committee’s Senate chairwoman, agreed, but went on to say that she believed the report warranted further discussion.

After about 20 minutes of discussion, committee members took no action. They did ask for more information, including a copy of the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission report into the matter, and agreed to take up discussions at the committee’s meeting on March 28.

An April 11, 2013, Sun Journal investigative report cited sources who said LePage had summoned the hearing officers and their supervisors to the mandatory meeting and scolded them for finding too many unemployment-benefit appeals cases in favor of workers. They were told they were doing their jobs poorly, sources said. Afterward, they told the Sun Journal they felt abused, harassed and bullied by the governor.

In her letter to Maine Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette, which was released to the public Thursday, U.S. DOL Regional Administrator Holly C. O’Brien wrote that investigators found no evidence of LePage’s claim that the appeals officers’ findings were unfair.

Instead, O’Brien wrote that LePage’s interference may skew future findings.

“The Governor and his political appointees must ensure the Unemployment Claims appeals process is insulated from outside pressures that might compromise even the appearance of fairness and impartiality,” O’Brien wrote.

LePage has denied allegations that he scolded hearing officers and said he was only urging officers “to follow the letter of the law.”

In addition to the federal findings that LePage interfered in the unemployment claims hearing process, the federal review concluded that the Maine Department of Labor practice of excluding hearsay evidence at hearings may be unduly restrictive, and that “failure to consider all available evidence without weighing its probative value may lead to error.”

Investigators also found some inconsistencies in Maine’s appeals process, and made a number of recommendations intended to create more consistency.

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