AUGUSTA, Maine — Responding to accusations he tried to influence the outcome of unemployment benefit appeal cases, Gov. Paul LePage said Wednesday he’ll appoint a special commission to investigate the state’s entire unemployment compensation system.
According to a news release from LePage’s office, the commission will include representatives of both employers and employees. The commission’s goal, the release said, will be to ensure Maine’s unemployment insurance system provides benefits to workers who are entitled to them and ensure that businesses aren’t charged when they appropriately let employees go.
LePage’s office said the commission also will review the rules and laws governing the unemployment compensation system to ensure they’re applied consistently.
The announcement from LePage follows reports in the Sun Journal last week that LePage scolded unemployment hearing officers at a March 21 Blaine House luncheon for finding too many unemployment benefit appeals cases in favor of workers, rather than employers. The hearing officers, who didn’t identify themselves, said the governor told them they were doing their jobs poorly. They said they felt abused, harassed and bullied by the governor, according to the Sun Journal.
LePage denied the allegations last week through a spokesman, who said the governor “simply reminded the staff that they must follow the law, that they should not weigh their decision either for or against employers or employees, and that both sides must be treated equally under the law.”
On Monday, a group of lawyers who represent jobless residents seeking unemployment benefits formally asked the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate allegations that LePage pressured appeals hearing officers to find more cases in favor of employers.
Representatives of the U.S. Department of Labor met with state labor officials Tuesday and Wednesday, according to visitor logs at the Maine Labor Department office in Augusta.
Barbara D’Amore, workforce security chief at the U.S. Department of Labor, met with Laura Boyett, head of the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation, for more than four hours Tuesday. D’Amore and John Murphy, from the regional employment and training administration in Boston, visited the state Labor Department on Wednesday.
A Maine Department of Labor spokesman declined to comment on why the federal representatives were at the state agency.
The chairwoman of the state’s Unemployment Compensation Commission, Jennifer Duddy, said she and LePage addressed concerns at the March 21 luncheon that unemployment claims officers at a lower level of appeals were repeatedly omitting evidence and testimony, which has resulted in unfair hearings.
Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette said last week that she and LePage have fielded many complaints from both business owners and workers who felt the hearing process was flawed. Paquette suggested the appeals system at her department was broken and ought to be fixed.
“Politically motivated demands for the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate a lunch meeting I had with hearings officers are based on anonymous allegations in media reports,” LePage said Wednesday in a written statement. “This orchestrated effort is designed to distract Mainers from the real issue, which is inconsistencies in the unemployment system. But I remain focused on assuring Mainers that there is fair and consistent application of the law throughout the process. That’s why I am calling for an all-encompassing investigation of the entire system.”
Democratic legislative leaders questioned the timing of LePage’s call for a blue ribbon commission.
Rep. Seth Berry, the Democratic leader in the House, called the move “a hastily arranged public relations ploy to divert attention from a potentially very serious problem.
“It seems like the governor is trying to distract people from the real issue at hand,” Berry said in a statement.
Assistant Democratic House Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan called the move premature “when a federal investigation is pending or underway.”
The Sun Journal contributed to this report.