AUGUSTA, Maine — A long-awaited report on whether Gov. Paul LePage and the Maine Department of Education interfered in an employment contract between Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves and Good Will-Hinckley has found strong evidence that LePage took steps to withdraw state funding from a charter school for at-risk students.
The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee received the 27-page report Tuesday morning in Augusta from Beth Ashcroft, director of the nonpartisan Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.
The committee voted unanimously to direct Ashcroft’s agency to investigate whether LePage improperly threatened to withhold $530,000 in state funding for Good Will-Hinckley, an organization that among other things runs the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield, to force the firing of Eves, who in June accepted a $120,000-per-year job as president of Good Will-Hinckley.
The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences is a public charter school, one of the first to open after legislation championed by LePage in 2011. Eves opposed that legislation and resisted LePage’s push to allow charter schools in Maine. LePage and Republicans pointed to that opposition in arguing that Eves should not be placed in control of the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences.
OPEGA found numerous witnesses who said that the threat to the school’s funding was real and the reason that Good Will-Hinckley rescinded its job offer to Eves.
The probe also found that LePage and the Department of Education were statutorily free to direct the use of the funding in question anywhere they pleased because it is allocated to an account that can be spent at the discretion of LePage and the executive branch.
Still, questions remain about the ethics of LePage’s threat to withhold the funds as retribution against a political opponent. Eves’ attorney has labeled it “blackmail.”
LePage, who objected to Eves’ hiring and called him unqualified for the position, has publicly admitted he threatened Good Will-Hinckley’s board of directors, which initially hired Eves by unanimous vote. Eves has filed a civil lawsuit against LePage, in which he accuses the governor of interfering with his family’s livelihood. That suit is pending.
OPEGA’s role is to present the results of its investigation into circumstances related to funding, whether it was threatened by LePage and whether any steps were taken to pull it back.
Among those watching from the wings is a group of lawmakers from the House of Representatives who have said they are considering launching impeachment proceedings against the governor for alleged impropriety in leveraging taxpayer funding for political retribution. One of the leaders of that group, independent Rep. Jeff Evangelos of Friendship, said after Tuesday’s hearing that he will await the conclusion of the Government Oversight Committee’s process, which includes a public hearing and questioning of witnesses at a meeting on Oct. 15, before he makes a final decision about how to proceed.
Ashcroft said Tuesday that several people told OPEGA investigators that LePage and the Department of Education made it clear that $530,000 per year in funding — distributed at the discretion of the governor — would be withheld from the school if Eves became president.
“Those at the receiving end of those communications knew that [hiring Eves] meant the $530,000 in support from the Center of Excellence [state funding would be withdrawn],” Ashcroft said. “Good Will-Hinckley immediately began assessing how they would manage without the funding.”
The loss of state funding prompted the Harold Alfond Foundation to notify Good Will-Hinckley that it was reconsidering providing millions of dollars in grant funding that was contingent on Good Will-Hinckley meeting performance benchmarks, including funding and expansion of the school’s residential program. In response to the controversy, the foundation hired a financial auditor to revisit Good Will-Hinckley’s budget and financial forecasts. That audit has been canceled now that the state has re-committed the funding to the organization.
However, the state and Good Will-Hinckley have signed an agreement under which the school will develop and implement a plan to wean itself from state funding within two years. The line of funding — which is the only one of its kind among Maine’s charter schools — was created with LePage-led legislation and funding from 2011.
Some member of the Government Oversight Committee on Tuesday questioned whether the committee should exercise its subpoena power to seek testimony from members of the LePage administration who have so far declined to talk with OPEGA investigators because of Eves’ lawsuit.
“We’d really like to hear from those people,” said Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford. “It seems to me that there are questions for people who were at some of these meetings [mentioned in the report].”
House Republican leaders interpreted the report as being positive for LePage.
“It appears that no new substantial information has been discovered,” said House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport in a prepared statement. “It is important to maintain the integrity of the process going forward while being careful to respect the inherent role of the Legislature and the constitutional role of the governor. … We must all be careful not to rush to judgment on this issue.”
Assistant House Republican Leader Ellie Espling of New Gloucester said she hopes “we can soon put this issue behind us.”
But Democrats said the report was damaging to LePage and confirmed what the media has been reporting since June.
“The report clearly shows that [LePage] is willing to damage Good Will-Hinckley to exact his personal revenge,” said House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan. “If we allow this, is any public servant — and Maine person — safe from this kind of abuse of power?”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the Harold Alfond Foundation threatened to withhold grant funding as a result of Good Will-Hinckley's possible loss of state funding. The Alfond Foundation hired an analyst to re-examine whether the organization could still meet benchmarks necessary to preserve the grant funding.