Legislative watchdog committee votes to continue monitoring jobless benefit appeals

Posted June 26, 2014, at 3:28 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A special federal audit has found no evidence of bias or undue political influence in the outcomes of unemployment compensation appeals hearings at the Maine Department of Labor, a state official told the Legislature.

Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette reported to the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee on Tuesday highlighting the agency’s responses to recommendations made in February by the U.S. Department of Labor and last year by an unemployment reform Blue Ribbon Commission.

The special audits were triggered by an April 2013 report by the Sun Journal that Gov. Paul LePage scolded hearing officers at the Maine Department of Labor who preside over appeals of unemployment compensation cases.

He complained, saying officers were finding too many cases in favor of employees.

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LePage’s actions took place during a mandatory luncheon at the Blaine House, the governor’s mansion. Hearing officers were told they were doing their jobs poorly, sources said.

Afterward, officers told the Sun Journal they felt abused, harassed and bullied by the governor.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s solicitor’s office launched an investigation. In February, the federal agency notified the state its investigation found LePage and state labor officials intervened in unemployment hearings in a way that could have swayed hearing officers to favor employers over claimants.

After the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee discussed Paquette’s report Thursday, members voted to keep the issue on its radar for next year’s legislative committee to revisit.

Democrats on the committee favored tracking the issue, while Republicans voted initially to take no further action and let the issue die. Rep. H. David Cotta, R-China, switched his vote to side with the Democrats.

“I was sorry to see a partisan vote on the issue,” Chairman Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, said after the committee adjourned. “It doesn’t happen very often.”

The Blue Ribbon Commission, formed at LePage’s request, recommended improvements to the system, including technology upgrades, more staffing, greater communication among staff at the three levels of the unemployment and appeals process, greater public understanding of the unemployment insurance program and more efficiency in the appeals process by improving the collection of evidence from employers.

A letter addressed to Paquette from the federal agency concluded that administration acted with “what could be perceived as a bias toward employers,” which hearing officers could have interpreted as an expectation to be more sympathetic toward employers.

It also stated the practice of excluding hearsay evidence at hearings could be unduly restrictive, and “failure to consider all available evidence without weighing its probative value may lead to error.”

Investigators also found several inconsistencies in Maine’s appeals process.

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