AUGUSTA, Maine — An investigation into Gov. Paul LePage’s role in forcing the ouster of House Speaker Mark Eves from a new job at Good Will-Hinckley may wrap up Thursday, but it might not be the end of several lawmakers’ efforts to discipline the governor.
The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, in partnership with the watchdog Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, has been conducting a fact-finding investigation for months, trying to determine whether LePage’s threat to rescind his support for Good Will-Hinckley and a public charter school it operates on its campus in Fairfield was illegal.
LePage has publicly admitted he threatened to withhold more than $500,000 per year in taxpayer funding if the organization hired Eves as its president, which has become the central question in hours of testimony by witnesses during the past two months.
Witnesses who testified under oath during a seven-hour hearing Nov. 12 differed over whether the funding threat was implied or explicit.
What may happen at Thursday’s committee meeting is largely unknown. One relative certainty is that the committee will vote on whether to accept a lengthy OPEGA report, in addition to a supplemental report that seeks to summarize the committee’s actions and verbal testimony provided since the original investigation.
Republican Sen. Roger Katz, who co-chairs the committee, said Tuesday that acceptance of that report, which he sees as likely, would signal that committee members view the probe as finished.
“I suspect that individual members of the committee will want to express themselves about what they draw from what we have learned,” Katz said.
In the past, the Government Oversight Committee has made a range of recommendations after OPEGA investigations. They ranged from suggesting new legislation to recommending that the attorney general launch a criminal investigation, as was the case in 2011 after an OPEGA probe revealed nearly $200,000 in fraudulent spending by former Maine Turnpike Authority Director Paul Violette.
Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, said Tuesday the case against Violette was different than the one against LePage.
“In regard to the turnpike authority, there was clear indication of illegal activity,” Sanderson, who serves on the committee, said. “Having a governor express whether or not he could support an entity is not illegal activity. There’s a vast difference between the two.”
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, said that while he has major problems with LePage’s actions in this instance and others, he has yet to see evidence of anything illegal.
“I’m not finding where he’s really broken laws,” Gerzofsky, another committee member, said. “I think he used intimidation. I think he used implied threats. I think he used a lot of hardball politics. But I haven’t seen or heard that a law was broken.”
Regardless, several lawmakers are intent on punishing LePage. In a letter sent to the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday, Rep. Christopher Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, said LePage’s action against Eves “dangerously threatens to redefine permissible behavior in Maine government.
“The Hinckley intervention should send shudders through the citizen Legislature,” he said. “Using one’s position of power in government to cause a political foe to be fired from his job outside of legislative service is an abuse of power.”
There are still Democratic lawmakers in the House intent on proposing impeachment proceedings against LePage. Under the Maine Constitution, impeachment proceedings originate in the House and then move to the Senate for trial-like consideration.
Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, the House chairman of the committee, said what happens Thursday is a mystery even to him.
“I don’t have any inside information about what to expect,” he said. “My guess is that the Republicans on the committee are going to be happy to put it on the dusty shelf. I think we’ve done what we can do to find the facts.”
Sanderson said the whole process has been a waste of time.
“I just don’t think it’s going to yield the result that some legislators would wish for,” she said.