AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to start a formal investigation into Gov. Paul LePage’s use of taxpayer money to force Good Will-Hinckley to fire House Speaker Mark Eves.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chairman of the committee, said lawmakers of both parties were concerned about the events of the past week involving Eves, LePage and the Fairfield-based nonprofit.
“The events of the last few weeks involving Good Will-Hinckley are troubling and, as often happens in partisan politics, it seems that some people are going to their corners and are ready to fight,” Katz said while opening the hearing. “Most people in Maine just want to know what happened.”
Earlier on Wednesday, LePage’s legal counsel argued in a letter to the committee that the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the watchdog agency the committee oversees, lacks any authority to investigate the governor.
OPEGA Director Beth Ashcroft said she disagrees with LePage’s argument because the probe by her agency would involve tracking the flow of taxpayer dollars to a nonprofit organization.
“It’s my opinion that we are well within our jurisdiction as OPEGA and this committee,” said Ashcroft, who added she would make this investigation a priority, beginning with interviews and a review of documents. She said the probe would be limited to looking into proposed or actual changes that were made to the budget lines for the charter school and how those changes affected the school.
“We are not going to be drawing any conclusions about whether the governor exercised his authority appropriately or not,” said Ashcroft. “That would be for others to decide.”
Ashcroft said in the past, facts uncovered by OPEGA have been used by the attorney general’s office, and in this case could potentially be used by lawmakers to launch disciplinary action against LePage.
OPEGA has conducted lengthy investigations and uncovered significant problems, including at the Maine Turnpike Authority, which resulted in the discovery in 2011 that former director Paul Violette embezzled tens of thousands of dollars from the agency. OPEGA also probed a document-shredding scandal at the Maine Center for Disease Control in 2013. In that instance, the Government Oversight Committee subpoenaed and interviewed several witnesses. Ashcroft said OPEGA could ask the committee to use its subpoena power again if investigators don’t encounter cooperation from the executive branch.
Ashcroft said she expects to be able to share at least a progress update with the committee at its July 17 meeting.
David Webbert, Eves’ attorney, said in a written statement to reporters that LePage “fundamentally misunderstands Maine’s Constitution and Maine’s Democratic form of government.”
“The governor’s wrongful refusal to submit to any oversight by the Legislature regarding his use of funds appropriated by the Legislature is consistent with his wrongful and dangerous view that he can use state funds to blackmail a school with the threat of the loss of state funds,” wrote Webbert, who added he intends to file a federal civil right lawsuit later this month, after the Legislature adjourns on July 16.
Rep. Bob Duchesne, D-Hudson, agreed and said the probe primarily should involve the Department of Education.
“That would normally be well within our scope,” Duchesne said.
Calls for an investigation began last week, a day after the Bangor Daily News first reported LePage threatened to withhold $530,000 a year in state support for Good Will-Hinckley, which runs the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, if the school followed through with hiring the North Berwick lawmaker. Good Will-Hinckley’s $120,000-per-year job offer to Eves was rescinded, and Eves is considering filing a civil suit against LePage.
On Monday, two requests were filed with the Government Oversight Committee calling for an investigation into whether LePage crossed any legal or ethical lines. One request was from Republican Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton and the other was from House independents Jeffrey Evangelos of Friendship and Ben Chipman of Portland, along with Democrat Charlotte Warren of Hallowell. The latter trio also has called for impeachment proceedings to commence against LePage, though that initiative has gained little traction.
Saviello said he was surprised and pleased by the unanimous vote.
“The committee was very thoughtful,” he said. “It was obvious by the level of questions that were asked that the committee is taking this seriously.”
“The fact that the governor had his lawyer send a letter to the committee saying they had no authority to investigate him I found particularly disturbing,” he said. “If he doesn’t have anything to hide, why would he oppose an investigation?”
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, however, supported the the governor’s side in a letter to the committee Wednesday.
“The suggestion that the chief executive, as prescribed in our state Constitution, should be subject to an investigation by this committee far exceeds its jurisdiction and the legislative intent in in forming OPEGA,” Fredette wrote. “I believe that to imply this would create a permanent and ongoing committee of special prosecutors that could become the political tool of opponents and foes alike of those in political office and further, exceeds the constitutional balance of power intended by our constitutional framers. This is a very slippery slope and may set a dangerous precedent for future governors.”
Paul Mills, a Farmington-based lawyer and well-known Maine political historian, said after Wednesday’s vote that the situation for LePage is about as serious as any Maine governor has ever found himself in, but that doesn’t mean LePage won’t survive unscathed.
Mills, who is the brother of former Republican Sen. Peter Mills and current Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills, said there has never been an impeachment proceeding against a governor in Maine but that 13 lower officials — including several sheriffs during Prohibition — have been removed from office in a process known as “address proceedings,” which involve cooperation between the Legislature and the governor.
Mills said the closest parallel to the current situation involved independent Gov. James Longley in 1975, who had a similarly adversarial relationship with the Legislature and other officials, including the attorney general.
“There was talk of impeaching Longley but it never reached a full investigative role and it didn’t go as far as convening a committee to investigate him,” said Mills.
Mills said that while a significant block of Maine people are angry at LePage for the Good Will-Hinckley issue and LePage’s recent obstruction of the legislative process through, among other things, an veto spree, he still has his supporters.
“I think you would find that a lot of the people who supported the governor are still supporting him. He has been counted out before,” said Mills. “He was considered doomed when he ran for re-election, but guess what? He got re-elected. He’s a street fighter from way back and he’s a survivalist. … This whole prospect of being subjected to this kind of scrutiny may be a sober prospect for him and I think the media would do well to recognize that he has a strong chance of fighting this one through.”