AUGUSTA, Maine — The executive director of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Board, who has come under fire for reassigning a hearings officer at the behest of a paper mill that didn’t like his decisions, defended himself from criticism during a Labor Committee hearing on Wednesday.
Paul Sighinolfi was appointed to the post by Republican Gov. Paul LePage not long after he was elected in 2010. In November 2011, after the NewPage paper company in Rumford complained about recent workers’ compensation cases to Sighinolfi and LePage administration officials during a private meeting, Sighinolfi reassigned the hearings officer assigned to the mill — despite saying the hearings officer in question, Glen Goodnough, had done nothing wrong.
In his place, he instituted a rotation system of three other hearings officers who would handle all new cases involving NewPage.
Sighinolfi said he told no one but LePage’s economic policy adviser John Butera about the move. Until recently, when he was confronted by mill employee, union member and Democratic state senator John Patrick during a March 11 board meeting, no one knew the reassignment had been made.
Partisan tension was rife during the more than three-hour affair: The hearing was described by one Republican on the committee, Sen. Andre Cushing of Hampden, as a “political comedy.” Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst, stormed out of the meeting, saying he’d have no part in what he called a “witch hunt.”
Democrats, meanwhile, pressured Sighinolfi about why he felt it was right to make the assignment change, which they said amounted to letting NewPage pick its own judge.
Sighinolfi said that while the usual system has hearings officers assigned on a geographic basis — the one closest to the workers is assigned to the case — there is no statute or rule requiring they be assigned that way.
Sighinolfi said he made the decision to reassign Goodnough not because the officer had done anything wrong, but because he was concerned that the mill had a perception that hearings were unfair.
“My thought was, if a problem and complaint was raised, I was going to come up with a way to address the complaints even if there was nothing there to suggest any glaring problems,” Sighinolfi said.
He said he didn’t believe he’d done anything wrong, and that though recent media coverage would make him “reticent,” he’d likely make the same decision again.
Democrats on the committee said they were perplexed that Sighinolfi made the staffing change for fear of perception, but did not think that removing an officer from NewPage cases after the company complained could create a perception of bias on his part.
“It seems arbitrary,” said Rep. Andrew Mason, D-Topsham. “The perception is, if an employer calls, something happens. But why?”
Mason also floated the idea of new legislation or rulemaking that would establish when and how the executive director should reassign hearings officers. But Sighinolfi cautioned against passing rules that could “hamstring” his ability to manage board staff.
Others wondered why any change had to be made at all.
“You keep telling me [the hearings officers] are good, Goodnough is good,” said Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford. “Everything you’re telling me is that there was no problem. But you still made the change.”
Sighinolfi also said the assignment change had not resulted in more decisions being made in favor of NewPage — a claim contradicted by a NewPage spokesmen who has told several media outlets that its workers compensation claim outcomes had “improved” since Goodnough was removed.
The contradiction left Patrick fuming. He blasted Sighinolfi for making the unilateral decision based on NewPage input alone, without talking with Goodnough, labor leaders or any injured workers.
“If things are better for the company, who are things worse for?” he said. “Who is the other side?”
Republicans on the board largely declined to ask substantial questions of Sighinolfi. They did, however, raise concerns about how Wednesday’s committee session was run.
Patrick, the Senate chairman of the committee, was chastised by Republicans for sharing his prepared questions with some members of the committee, but not others. Patrick was also criticized for refusing, initially, to allow some Republican committee members to ask follow-up questions.
Before he left, Lockman also jabbed Patrick for holding the hearing after he’d already told the Bangor Daily News that he thinks Sighinolfi should resign. “I’m wondering what the purpose of now asking questions is, when you’ve already reached a conclusion about what the outcome should be?” he said.
As could have been predicted, lawmakers from both parties left the hearing with different takes on Sighinolfi’s actions. Republicans seemed largely satisfied with Sighinolfi’s explanation of events, while Democrats said they would need time to digest the information and decide on next steps.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.