December 18, 2017
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LePage’s probe of human rights panel finds no bias against businesses

By Christopher Cousins and Jake Bleiberg, BDN Staff
Updated:
BDN File | BDN
BDN File | BDN
Nathan Beck (right) and his father, Dan Beck (center), listen during a Human Rights Commission hearing regarding allegations that Moody's Diner, which is co-owned by Beck, discriminated against a longtime employee in Augusta in this November 2014 file photo.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A panel convened by Gov. Paul LePage to determine if the Maine Human Rights Commission operates with a bias against businesses has found no such bias exists.

The 30-page report, which was dated Tuesday, concludes with a list of 13 recommendations designed to make the commission more efficient, ranging from hiring more investigators and support staff to streamlining internal processes in investigations.

Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission, welcomed the panel’s findings that the organization is not biased but suggested that this was evident before the governor ordered the investigation.

“We think the report very clearly and unambiguously finds that we are factually not biased and don’t act in a way that is biased toward anyone in our process, nevermind labor,” said Sneirson. “We also think that anyone looking at our annual reports could have found the same thing a year ago without needing this review panel.”

Among the key findings of the review was that the five-person commission, which enforces the Maine Human Rights Act, needs more funding.

“When fiscally feasible, more funding is required to pay for more staff, training, outreach and the other recommendations noted above,” concludes the report. “The review panel was surprised to learn of the relatively small amount of state funding supporting the day-to-day operations of the [Maine Human Rights Commission].”

Sneirson agreed with that finding.

“We are gratified to see the panel’s understanding that our agency is wildly underfunded and understaffed and its recommendations for more of both,” she said. “We’re looking forward to working with the administration to move forward with many of the recommendations in this report.”

Tensions between LePage and the commission erupted in November 2014 when the commission ruled against the owners of Moody’s Diner, a restaurant in Waldoboro, in a religious discrimination case. LePage intervened in February 2015.

In an effort to force the case to be reopened, he refused to authorize the commission’s request to move about $4,000 of its own revenues from one account to another so it could hire a temporary secretary while another employee was on leave.

In March 2015, the commission convened to consider reopening the case but voted not to in a denial of LePage’s request.

LePage issued an executive order in April 2015 that called for an investigation into the commission’s operations. That order was among executive orders that were later found to have been filed incorrectly, though LePage’s office corrected the error and refiled them.

LePage’s office has argued in the past that the creation of the review panel was to ensure that the commission’s process is “fair for all parties.”

“The governor’s intention when he created this group was and continues to be an effort to safeguard the process,” said LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett in October 2015.

LePage’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

The report was not sent directly to the Maine Human Rights Commission but rather submitted to the office of the governor, Sneirson said. The Bangor Daily News obtained a copy of the report that was forwarded to the Maine Human Rights Commission by a member of the governor’s commission.

“The review panel did not identify any evidence of actual prejudice against respondents or bias in favor of complainants,” reads the report. “The perception of prejudice or bias is based, at least in part, on misunderstandings regarding why [the Maine Human Rights Commission] does its work, what the [commission’s] work is, and how the [commission] performs its role. … In general terms, the perceptions of prejudice against respondents or bias in favor of petitions were not the fault of the commission or its staff.”

In addition to ferreting out bias on the commission, the panel was to review the commission’s structure, identify changes to rules and practices that are too burdensome on participants and unfair to respondents and complainants. The report was supposed to be issued to the governor by April 15, or within two months of that date if the panel needed more time.

The report found that in 2014, only 5 percent of the cases filed with the commission resulted in the commission finding reasonable grounds that there was a violation.

Review panelist James Clifford, a Maine lawyer, submitted additional final comments to the governor’s office. They open with a quotation from Groucho Marx: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.”
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