AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Legislature’s watchdog Government Oversight Committee will convene Wednesday to discuss allegations that Gov. Paul LePage improperly or illegally interfered with Good Will-Hinckley’s hiring of Democratic House Speaker M a rk Eves as the organization’s president.
As first reported by the BDN last week, LePage threatened to withhold more than $500,000 per year in state funding for Good Will-Hinckley, which oversees the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, unless the school rescinded its offer to Eves, whic h it did last week. Eves was to start his new job July 1.
There have been two calls for the Government Oversight Committee to launch an investigation through its nonpartisan agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. The committee originally didn’t plan to convene until next week.
“Serious questions have been raised about the appropriateness and legality of the governor’s action in this matter,” said Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, chairman of the Government Oversight Committee. “Many voices are calling for some kind of legislative review to get all the facts into the open. We need a rational, bipartisan venue where the facts can be explored.”
Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, the committee’s co-chairman, joined Katz’s call to convene on Wednesday.
“I am deeply concerned about the accusations around the abuse of power and a pattern of the chief executive trying to subvert the will of the Legislature,” said Kruger. “We need to ensure that each and every member of the Legislature feels free to vote their conscience without fear of retribution.”
There were widely divergent opinions among lawmakers at the State House on Tuesday about whether an investigation is warranted. While some said the issue needs to be probed, others said there’s no indication LePage broke any laws.
“I wonder, what are we investigating? What is the alleged crime?” said Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn. “If the issue is that the governor used discretionary funds which he has discretion over, there’s no issue there.”
Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, agreed.
“I think it’s like a cat chasing its tail,” said Timberlake. “He’s admitted everything he said. … If Speaker Eves is going to sue him and take this to the courts, let’s let the courts decide.”
Timberlake said a revelation Tuesday that Eves would be paid a $30,000 severance fee by Good Will-Hinckley would complicate the issue.
“I don’t think that will look very good for the speaker,” said Timberlake.
Eves’ attorney, David Webbert, said the North Berwick Democrat will receive the money — equal to three months of his $120,000 annual salary — as a result of a termination clause in the contract Eves signed in May.
Webbert said the clause allowed Good Will-Hinckley to fire Eves, without cause, with 60 days notice and then pay him one month of severance. The school chose not to have Eves work during his 60-day notice period.
“So, under the contract the school will be putting [Eves] on the payroll effective July 1 and keeping him on the payroll for 60 days and then either paying him a lump sum payment for the one-month severance or leaving him on the payroll for another month,” Webbert wrote in an email to the BDN.
Eves has said through his attorney that he is considering his legal options and could sue LePage for illegal retaliation as early as July.
Members of the Democratic caucus, including Rep. Ryan Tipping-Spitz of Orono, said they have been flooded with emails and phone calls from constituents demanding an investigation.
“I think we all want to see the facts come out,” said Tipping-Spitz.
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, said he supports a “fact-finding investigation,” but that he is not yet come to any conclusions.
“I think it’s appropriate for the Government Oversight Committee to raise these questions,” he said.
Democratic Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake said an investigation may be premature.
“At this point I’m not sure enough has surfaced at this point,” said Martin. “I’ve always been a believer that if you go digging, you should know what you’re digging for.”
BDN writer Mario Moretto contributed to this report.