AUGUSTA, Maine — A Republican state senator and three representatives in the House have filed separate requests for an investigation of Gov. Paul LePage’s interference in Good Will-Hinckley’s selection of Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves as its new president.
Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, made his request in a letter delivered Monday to the Government Oversight Committee. In the letter, he asked the committee to direct the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, to “investigate whether this administration has crossed legal or ethical lines by leveraging state resources for political purposes.”
In a separate letter, three representatives — independents Jeffrey Evangelos of Friendship and Ben Chipman of Portland and Democrat Charlotte Warren of Hallowell — also asked for an OPEGA investigation of LePage’s funding threat to Good Will-Hinckley.
LePage threatened to withhold more than $500,000 annually in discretionary funding for residential programs at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences — a charter school for at-risk youth operated by Good Will-Hinckley — if it did not reverse a decision made in May to hire Eves as the new president. That threat prompted a private foundation to reconsider its $2.75 million gift to the school, which was contingent on the state funds.
Last week, buckling to pressure from LePage, the Good Will-Hinckley board fired the House speaker. Eves has obtained an attorney, David Webbert, who has said the speaker would file a civil lawsuit against LePage in the coming weeks.
LePage and his allies have said the school never should have hired Eves because of the North Berwick lawmaker’s stated opposition to charter schools and lack of experience in education.
Eves, a licensed therapist who said he was attracted to the Fairfield-based nonprofit operation because of the organization’s mission to help at-risk young people, called LePage’s tactics “blackmail” and said the governor had interfered in his ability to provide for his family.
Saviello said he was concerned that LePage may have overreached his authority in seeking to nix a private contract by withholding state funding.
“Like you, I take my role as an elected official seriously and firmly believe that our responsibility is not simply to protect the well-being of the state, but also to protect the sanctity of our democracy,” Saviello wrote. “For that reason, I am deeply troubled by the recent highly publicized reports suggesting the administration may have used state funding as a tool to target political opponents.”
Saviello’s letter includes requests that in addition to looking into the Good Will-Hinckley controversy, OPEGA “review the allocation process for other discretionary funding available to the administration” and “report any examples of improper or potentially inappropriate discretionary use of state resources.”
In an interview Monday, Saviello said his goal was to empower OPEGA with a broad scope for any potential investigation.
The committee, however, “may, in fact, make a decision not to do that,” Saviello said. “They may make a decision to be very specific. But I wanted them to think the request was broader, rather than narrower.”
In their letter, the trio of representatives said they considered LePage’s interference “an act of intimidation, misuse of state funds, abuse of power, conduct unbecoming of a public official sworn to uphold the law and a violation of Mark Eves’ 14th Amendment rights.”
Warren said she and her colleagues were responding to an outcry from their constituents in filing their request.
“We are just hearing from so many people who want us to get to the bottom of this, and who are asking for an investigation,” she said in an interview. “I also want there to be one, and I want answers as to what happened here.”
While Eves has said neither he nor anyone in the speaker’s office would be involved in a legislative response to LePage’s actions, House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said his caucus supports an OPEGA investigation.
“We support an investigation into these allegations of serious abuses of power in regards to Good Will-Hinckley as well as others incidents that have been reported in the media,” McCabe said. “The people of Maine have a right to know whether their elected officials are misusing their authority or state funds.”
The Government Oversight Committee’s House chairman, Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Rockland, said Monday that while some are talking of impeachment, he’s reluctant to consider such drastic measures just yet.
“I’m happy to be part of an OPEGA investigation that may or may not lead to action of some kind,” Kruger said Monday. “Usually what happens after an OPEGA investigation is it goes to the attorney general. But I want to be in the fact-finding mode before I draw a lot of conclusions.”
The committee must vote to authorize any investigation. Kruger said an investigation into LePage’s actions with regard to Eves and Good Will-Hinckley may be “fast-tracked,” meaning OPEGA would be instructed to postpone other work to immediately take on the new investigation.
The committee is scheduled to meet sometime during the week of July 13, but no meeting date has been set yet, Kruger said.
With the committee’s approval, OPEGA, the Legislature’s nonpartisan, independent watchdog group, has subpoena power to conduct investigations. After fact-finding, the agency reports back to the committee, which may take further action based on OPEGA’s findings.
“The goal is to do fact-finding, and get the facts out into the public, so that legislators and the public as a whole can draw their own conclusions from there,” said Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the committee’s Senate chairman.
Previous OPEGA investigations have led to the filing of criminal charges against the director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, who in 2012 was found guilty of stealing more than $230,000.
The scandal over Good Will-Hinckley’s firing of Eves — and the actions by the governor that caused it — has rocked Augusta since it was revealed last week by the Bangor Daily News.
Eves and others have excoriated the governor, saying he abused the power of his office in punishing Good Will-Hinckley for hiring one of his political opponents, and for subjecting the organization to needless uncertainty because of politics in Augusta.
In a Monday release, the Maine Republican Party accused Eves of having a conflict of interest in applying to be president of the charter school while also serving in the Legislature, which awards funding to it and other schools.
But the Maine Ethics Commission, responding to questions by Eves at the time he applied for the job, found there had been no conflict of interest while the speaker was in the running for president of Good Will-Hinckley.
However, the commission did say that if he was hired by the school, Eves should consider recusing himself from further deliberations on its funding, “in order to avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest.”
LePage has said he was protecting taxpayer dollars in opposing Eves as the nonprofit’s president.
“To provide half-a-million dollars in taxpayer funding to a charter school that would be headed by Maine’s most vehement anti-charter-school politician is not only the height of hypocrisy, it is absolutely unacceptable,” he said in a release last week.
Calls for comment to LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, went unanswered on Monday.
Sun Journal state politics editor Scott Thistle contributed to this report. Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.