August 24, 2019
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Panel seeks to force staff to testify about Eves’ firing

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted Thursday to subpoena two members of Gov. Paul LePage’s administration who have refused to cooperate with an investigation into the governor’s role in forcing Good Will-Hinckley to rescind an employment contract to Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves.

That decision came on Thursday after a full day of testimony to the committee. During lengthy questioning Thursday morning, Jack Moore, chairman of Good Will-Hinckley’s board of directors, told lawmakers that LePage’s threat to withhold state funding because of the school’s hiring of Eves placed its existence in jeopardy.

Lawmakers who supported issuing subpoenas to Cynthia Montgomery, LePage’s chief legal counsel, and Aaron Chadbourne, a top adviser to the governor, cited Moore’s candid and illuminating testimony as a reason that calling more people to testify would be valuable.

Moore said LePage’s threat to withhold $530,000 in state funding likely would have caused Good Will-Hinckley to lose millions in grant funding from the Harold Alfond Foundation.

“We didn’t need the letter from the Alfond Foundation to know we were in trouble with the funding there. … Throughout this process we were focused on fulfilling our fiduciary duties,” Moore said. “We could not have been doing that by going down the road to a series of defaults that could put Good Will-Hinckley in question. It would have been imprudent for us to just wait for the chips to fall.”

Moore’s testimony confirmed much of what has been reported by the media and the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability: That by threatening the funding, LePage, his staff and acting Education Commissioner Tom Desjardin were directly responsible for Good Will-Hinckley’s board canceling a $120,000 per year employment contract with Eves.

Eves has since filed a federal civil lawsuit against LePage, who has not denied that he leveraged the state funding to force Eves out. Some legislators have suggested that LePage’s action could trigger impeachment proceedings, and many have said they await the results of the oversight committee’s work before determining whether they would support such a move.

LePage insists he did nothing wrong and was simply exercising the discretion granted to him by the budget allocating the funds. He cited Eves’ opposition to legislation establishing charter schools in Maine as a key reason why the speaker was a poor choice to lead Good Will-Hinckley.

Moore said that in addition to a handwritten note from LePage that called Eves a “hack” — which Moore said he threw away — and a formal letter written by the governor in early June, communications to the board’s interim president raised a major “red flag” about the funding.

“The red flag came from our interim president, Richard Abramson, who did get a call or a direct communication from the governor,” Moore said. “We felt if we didn’t have the funding, that could very potentially trigger a series of events that could conceivably result in the school closing down. That is why as fiduciaries we as a board took the steps that we did.”

Moore said the board, which oversees a public charter school called the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, thought unanimously that Eves was highly qualified for the job.

“The speaker is a good speaker, and that was a skill set that was attractive to us,” Moore said. “We thought he could probably raise money. … We have a great staff that can manage the on-campus happenings. We needed someone who was outward-facing.”

Some members of the committee said they continue to be bothered by unanswered questions, mostly relating to the move to block the state funding for Good Will-Hinckley and when that happened, which could be answered by more witnesses.

In addition to subpoenas for Montgomery and Chadbourne, the committee will request voluntary interviews with Abramson, Hinckley board member Jay Nutting, Hinckley lobbyist Sara Vanderwood, Sarah Forster from the attorney general’s office, Greg Powell of the Harold Alfond Foundation, Desjardin, DOE employee Suzan Beaudoin, and Bill Brown, who is a staffer for Eves and board member for the charter school operated by Good Will-Hinckley.

Interviews of those individuals are scheduled for the committee’s next hearing on Nov. 12.

Some committee members disagreed about whether to issue subpoenas. Three Republicans — Sen. David Burns of Whiting, Rep. Deb Sanderson of Chelsea and Rep. Mike McClellan of Raymond — voted against issuing them. Burns said he thought the committee has already learned the truth and that more interviews would be a waste of time and potentially damaging to the process.

“I don’t like a lot of things I’m seeing lately either in this state or with the federal government,” said Burns. “I don’t think this is the proper venue to try to undo that series of mistakes that were made. I don’t want to pursue something that is going to cause more grief for the government and Good Will-Hinckley.”

All of the Democrats on the committee, plus two Republicans, Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta and Rep. Richard Campbell of Orrington, voted in favor of the subpoenas. Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, was absent.

“I do think that it’s important that Cynthia Montgomery and Aaron Chadbourne be here, and I don’t think they will come unless we subpoena them,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham. “It’s an important part of our information-gathering process.”

Montgomery and Chabourne have cited Eves’ lawsuit against LePage as grounds for refusing to answer the legislative committee’s questions.

OPEGA director Beth Ashcroft said that anyone who doesn’t abide by a subpoena from the Government Oversight Committee risks being charged with contempt through the Maine Superior Court System.

 



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