PORTLAND, Maine — House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, filed a civil lawsuit against Gov. Paul LePage in U.S. District Court in Portland on Thursday afternoon.
The lawsuit alleges LePage “blackmailed’ Good Will-Hinckley — a Fairfield nonprofit that had recently hired Eves to be its president — by threatening to withhold state funding if the organization didn’t fire Eves.
The school did fire him, which Eves says was a result of LePage’s threat that the House speaker — in his legal arguments and public statements — said violated his civil rights.
“The governor’s actions clearly violate the First Amendment right of every Maine citizen to have their legislator speak freely and independently without the threat of the governor,” Eves said during a news conference Thursday outside the courthouse. “The time has come; Somebody has to stand up to say enough.”
In the lawsuit, Eves argues that LePage acted out of “personal rage, vindictiveness and partisan malice” in moving to get Eves fired. The effort to oust Eves from a job was “plain and simple retaliation and abuse of power,” said Eves’ attorney, David Webbert.
Webbert writes that the governor violated Eves’ rights to free speech, free association and political affiliation by seeking to deny him employment because of his political positions.
The governor’s office, which has not yet filed a court response, dismissed the lawsuit as political in nature.
“It has no legal merit and is the Democrats’ concerted attempt to accomplish what they couldn’t at the ballot box inside a courtroom,” said Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s press secretary, in a written statement.
Eves first accused LePage of interfering in his career in late June, when Good Will-Hinckley announced it had fired him.
Eves, who was scheduled to begin work at the nonprofit on July 1, said he was fired because LePage had threatened to withhold $530,000 in annual state funding to Good Will-Hinckley if he became president. LePage allegedly made the threat in a note to the organization’s chairman, John Moore.
Moore later claimed he had thrown the note away.
The school’s leaders have stayed quiet on the specifics of why Eves was let go, saying only that the decision was “grounded in the institution’s desire not to be involved in political controversy that will divert attention away from our core mission of serving children and has the potential to jeopardize the future of our school.”
LePage has not been shy about his opposition to Eves receiving the job, blasting the school and the House speaker in news releases, radio addresses and interviews with reporters. Chief among his reasons to oppose the hiring is Eves’ prior opposition to charter schools. Good Will-Hinckley operates a charter school — the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences — in addition to several other programs. The school has its own board and principal.
In an interview on WGAN, a Portland radio station, on Thursday, LePage touched on the controversy.
“He voted against every charter school bill while I’ve been governor. He made public statements that charter schools were inferior schools,” LePage said. “My mindset was this guy’s a plant by the unions to destroy charter schools.”
The funding in question exists in a budget line under the governor’s discretion — meaning LePage did have the authority to release the funds or not. But Webbert, Eves’ attorney, said that discretion did not authorize LePage to use the funds as leverage to harm a political opponent.
“We don’t have dictators,” Webbert said. “He has some discretion, but it doesn’t include discretion to discriminate or violate the First Amendment.”
Eves is seeking a jury trial, during which LePage could be deposed under oath. He’s asked the court to declare that the governor acted illegally, and to enter injunctive relief requiring LePage to revoke his threat to the school. He’s also seeking damages, including lost wages and punitive damages.
The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee also has authorized an independent investigation into whether LePage played any illegal or unethical role in Eves’ firing.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified who sent a statement to reporters on behalf of Gov. Paul LePage.