December 15, 2018
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Watchdog panel OKs new probes into Maine unemployment system, timber allocation

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Beth Ashcroft

AUGUSTA, Maine — The legislative watchdog committee that is investigating Maine’s child welfare system authorized new probes on Friday into reported problems with the state’s new online unemployment benefits system and allocation of timber harvested on public land.

The new investigations were requested by Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s labor committee, and the Legislature’s forestry committee after both panels wrestled with Gov. Paul LePage’s administration in trying to get information on both issues.

Problems arose with Maine’s new online unemployment compensation system after its December rollout. Earlier this month, the Morning Sentinel published a memo saying the Maine Department of Labor destroyed complaints about the system and implemented it despite employees’ concerns.

Labor Commissioner John Butera responded with a Thursday letter to the the labor committee denying that documents were destroyed inappropriately, decrying “unsubstantiated allegations generated by legislators and the media” and saying claims processing has “stabilized.”

Fecteau said he and Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, have talked with 15 current and former state labor and information technology employees with concerns about the rollout, saying an independent investigation is needed to vet the claims of a premature rollout and destruction of complaints.

The committee backed the unemployment system investigation in an 8-2 vote.

The investigation of the state’s timber allocation won unanimous approval after an inquiry in the forestry committee led by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, who wrangled with LePage at a Tuesday hearing.

LePage and Maine State Forester Doug Denico have denied that the state diverted timber harvested from public land away from two millowners because of their political differences with the Republican governor on new softwood tariffs, saying some wood was transferred in February to a mill because it was near closure.

The governor denied wrongdoing at Tuesday’s hearing, but also implored the forestry panel to send the issue to the Government Oversight Committee, which runs the independent Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, because he questioned the forestry committee’s honesty. The watchdog panel approved the request unanimously on Friday.

The two new reviews will add to a heavy workload for OPEGA, which is working toward a May report on the state’s involvement with two families before the February death of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and the December death of 4-year-old Kendall Chick and another, more time-consuming report on Maine’s child welfare system at large.

On Friday, the Government Oversight Committee unanimously approved subpoenas to four educational entities in those cases, including records from Bangor and Searsport schools and the Maine Department of Education in the Kennedy case and the education department’s Child Development Services system in the Chick case.

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