At the end of June, the situation seemed clear: There was little question Gov. Paul LePage had threatened to withhold state funds from a Fairfield nonprofit organization over its decision to hire House Speaker Mark Eves as its next president.
LePage essentially admitted to it in a June 25 news release.
“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,” the statement from LePage read.
He made an even more unequivocal statement four days later, responding to a question from WMTW reporter Paul Merrill.
“Yeah, I did.” he said. “If I could, I would. Absolutely. Why wouldn’t I? Tell me why I wouldn’t take the taxpayer money to prevent somebody to go into a school and destroy it. Because his heart’s not into doing the right thing for Maine people.”
But more than four months later, the 12 lawmakers digging into the situation that prompted allegations that LePage abused his authority and calls for his impeachment have uncovered, well, a muddle. Those searching for a smoking gun to indict LePage haven’t found one.
There is, by and large, agreement on the key facts. There’s no question that LePage’s intervention with Eves’ appointment at Good Will-Hinckley caused the nonprofit organization’s board, concerned by the prospect of losing $530,000 in state funding, to rescind its offer to the Democratic House speaker. And there’s no question that representatives of Good Will-Hinckley and the Harold Alfond Foundation, a major Hinckley donor, came away from interactions with the governor and his representatives with the impression that Good Will-Hinckley risked a major state funding loss because of the person it hired as its leader.
But Government Oversight Committee members have yet to uncover a specific instance in which anyone from the LePage administration explicitly told Good Will-Hinckley its state funding was in jeopardy unless it reneged on its agreement to hire Eves — as LePage said he had done.
There was the handwritten note from LePage to Hinckley board chairman John Moore. But Moore has said the note, which he threw away, did not explicitly mention state funding. It said something along the lines of, “I would have trouble supporting Hinckley if you hire such a hack,” Moore recalled to investigators from the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.
And there was the conversation between LePage adviser Aaron Chadbourne and Good Will-Hinckley lobbyist Sara Vanderwood after LePage learned of Eves’ hire. Vanderwood told lawmakers Thursday that Chadbourne indicated the Eves hire would result in Good Will-Hinckley “losing LePage’s support.” Again, there was no specific mention of funding, but Vanderwood came away with the impression that Good Will-Hinckley’s state funding — which she had been hired to protect — was in jeopardy. Chadbourne told lawmakers he didn’t intend to communicate a threat of lost funding.
Then there was LePage’s phone call to Greg Powell, chairman of the Harold Alfond Foundation, whose financial support of Good Will-Hinckley helped turn the organization around after it nearly closed in 2009. The foundation’s support was contingent upon the state meeting its funding obligations, Powell said Thursday.
During the phone conversation, LePage told Powell he couldn’t support the organization if it hired Eves. To Powell, the word “support” meant state funding. But LePage never explicitly mentioned state funding, and Powell never asked the governor for clarification.
“Support” from the LePage administration may have meant moral support for Good Will-Hinckley and the governor’s continued championing of the organization. It’s hard to believe that’s all it could mean, though, especially in the context of state policy, given the range of people to whom LePage and members of his administration proactively communicated the governor’s pending loss of support and given LePage’s public statements in June.
LePage has yet to directly speak about the matter under oath. Perhaps, as part of Eves’ civil lawsuit against him, LePage will shed clarity on his actions and the intent behind them.