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Feds: LePage Unemployment Intervention Improper, But No Bias Found
02/27/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Federal investigators with the Department of Labor have concluded that Maine Gov. Paul LePage and his political appointees improperly intervened in the hearing process for appeals of unemployment claims. The investigators say statements were made that led the hearing officers to believe the governor wanted them to favor employers in their findings. But as A.J. Higgins reports, the governor says the findings are politically motivated.

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The report issued by the U.S. Department of Labor Office of the Solicitor General concluded that the governor and his political appointees engaged in discussions that could be perceived as an attempt to influence the unemployment claims appeals decision-making process to favor employers.

And Democratic Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson says LePage must be held accountable. "This is serious, this is as bad as it gets," Jackson says.

The wide-ranging investigation was triggered by complaints made by state unemployment claims hearing officers last March, who claimed that LePage was intimidating during a Blaine House luncheon, and scolded them about how the officers were favoring jobless workers over employers.

The federal investigators say they'll continue monitoring operations at the state Department of Labor, overseen by Commissioner Jeanne Paquette. The investigators also submitted a number of recommendations to Paquette and LePage, saying both must ensure that the appeals process is insulated from outside pressures that could compromise the impartiality of the process.

But Jackson says that doesn't go far enough. "This is, like I said, coercion and intimidation from a government official at its worst," he says. "It's something that rises, in my opinion, at looking at if it's something that we should be at least talking about if it's impeachable."

LePage wasn't taking press inquiries today, but he did issue a written statement in response to the report's release, blaming President Obama.

"It is also no surprise that the Obama Administration's Department of Labor is speculating my administration somehow tried to influence the hearings process," LePage writes. "This issue has been politically motivated from the start, starting with Democratic activists in Maine and reaching all the way to the White House.

The statement goes on to say that the review found no evidence of wrongdoing, but uses what LePage calls "conjecture and supposition" to come to a conclusion that has no basis in fact.

The investigation did confirm some areas of the appeals process that LePage has said should be improved, and found no cases of bias in any of the hearing officers' decisions. Julie Rabinowitz, communications director for the state Department of Labor, says the findings are welcome.

"It's actually been a really positive process for the department to have outside organizations look at the appeals process and the entire unemployment system, from the first time a claimant makes a filing all the way up through the decision made by the unemployment insurance commission, which is the highest authority," Rabinowitz says. "And that's where we're going to see the benefit and the improvements."

But Rabinowitz also said that the report shows that political appointees will have to find ways to communicate with employees on sensitive issues so as not to be misconstrued. Democratic Sen. John Patrick, the co-chair of the Legislature's Labor Committee, says he'd like to think that means the administration has learned something from the investigation. But he says that remains to be seen.

"When you're business style is a certain way, when your lifestyle is a certain way, they have a propensity to do the same thing - there may be a lull," Patrick says. "I hope it means a significant change because for the betterment of the state of Maine, it should be fair."

LePage's political opponents in this fall's governor's race also weighed in on the report. Democratic challenger Michael Michaud says the investigation proves that LePage was personally biased against workers; and independent Eliot Cutler says the findings are yet another black eye for the governor's office.


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