Federal official confirms Maine Labor Department probe; state workers union seeks independent review of LePage

Maine Gov. Paul LePage delivers his State of the State address in in the house chambers in Augusta on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage delivers his State of the State address in in the house chambers in Augusta on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Buy Photo
Posted April 18, 2013, at 11:41 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Acting U.S. Labor Secretary Seth Harris told Gov. Paul LePage during a telephone call late Wednesday that an audit of the Maine Department of Labor’s handling of unemployment claims came in response to complaints of inconsistencies, not due to comments the governor allegedly made last month during a Blaine House lunch.

Meanwhile, the Maine State Employees Association said in a press release Thursday morning that it is calling for an independent review of the state’s unemployment system and potential attempts by LePage to intimidate unemployment hearing officers into ruling on the side of businesses.

LePage called Harris at about 5 p.m. Wednesday to inquire about the scope of the federal department’s inquiry in Maine, according to Peter Steele, the governor’s communications director, who said he witnessed LePage’s end of the conversation.

“Acting Secretary Harris told the governor that he does not consider the audit to be an investigation,” Steele said Thursday morning. “The acting secretary and the governor agreed that the process should not be politicized.”

Steele said Harris told LePage that the federal audit of the Maine Department of Labor was triggered by press reports in recent days of inconsistencies in how the department adjudicates unemployment claim appeals. Because unemployment funds flow from the federal government, the U.S. Department of Labor can conduct an audit whenever it wishes.

“Whenever they get a complaint, they will come out and do an audit,” said Steele of the federal Department of Labor. “The governor wanted to know the scope and progress of the audit and how they could work together.”

Harris indicated to LePage that the audit would likely happen quickly. Federal auditors have been in Augusta this week, according to media reports.

Ginette Rivard, president of the union that represents the majority of state workers, said LePage’s recent reported comments to unemployment hearing officers at a Blaine House lunch constituted “attacks on the integrity of the entire system of unemployment compensation.”

“We call for an independent and fair evaluation of the governor’s actions, including his claim that the rules of evidence should be amended,” said Rivard in a news release. “We also call for serious reforms to protect the independence of the appeals process from political pressure. The administration has inflicted serious damage and has, once again, attacked hardworking and dedicated state employees who are responsible for enforcing state and federal law.”

Steele repeated prior assertions from the administration that LePage did not threaten or intimidate any Department of Labor workers.

LePage announced Wednesday that he will sign an executive order to create a Blue Ribbon Commission to investigate the wider unemployment compensation system in Maine. Steele said Thursday that LePage had not yet signed the order but hoped for progress in setting up the commission later in the day.

The commission, which will be appointed by the governor, will include representatives of both employers and employees, Steele said.

Rivard said she has doubts about the impartiality of LePage’s blue ribbon commission.

“Through his actions and statements, the governor has already demonstrated the outcome he wants from his commission,” said Rivard. “We are concerned that this effort is political theater, designed to avoid a serious, independent review of the governor’s actions and his effort to rewrite the rules governing unemployment appeals. This is not a time for witch hunts or public shaming of state employees. Instead, we need a legitimate and impartial review.”

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