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Legislative Committee Seeks to Probe Maine Labor Department
02/28/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Despite initial resistance from some Republican members, the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee has authorized a possible inquiry into the activities of the state Department of Labor. The action follows a federal investigation that found fault with Gov. Paul LePage and his political appointees for appearing to pressure labor hearing officers to favor employers in unemployment appeals. Meanwhile, some Republicans say Democrats are trying to exploit the hearing officer issue for political gain in an election year, and are raising questions of their own about alleged bias within what's supposed to be a non-partisan policy staff at the State House. A.J. Higgins has more.

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They had waited for nearly a year for the results of a federal investigation into the state Department of Labor. And when that federal report was released yesterday, members of the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee thought they were ready to begin discussing the timetable for their own probe. But it almost didn't happen.

"I met with my colleagues early this morning and I understand their hesitation and I guess that I would move that we table this matter," said Rep. Paul Davis.

Before Davis, a Sangerville Republican, made the motion to table action on the hearing officer inquiry, other Republicans expressed concern about delving into the results of the report from the U.S. Department of Labor Office of the Solicitor General.

Among its findings: that Gov. Paul LePage 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.

Although, the issue has been on the committee's back burner for months, Republican Sen. Roger Katz said he would like more time to peruse the document that admonished his party's governor.

"It's nine pages long - I haven't had a chance to read it," Katz said. "I don't know if fellow committee member share that - that they didn't get a chance to look at it last night."

But Democratic Sen. Emily Cain, of Orono, says she had no trouble finding the time to delve into the feds' findings. "I've read it twice in the past 36 hours," Cain said.

The Government Oversight Committee, comprised of six Democrats and six Republicans, is supposed to be a non-political panel in charge of operations of the state Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. It's been a slightly mroe difficult year for the GOP members, who have had to take actions aimed directly at the LePage administration.

The panel is in the midst of subpoenaing staff at state Center for Disease Control, where one worker says she was ordered by her supervisor to shred public documents. During Friday's meeting, Rep. Davis asked colleagues to consider a closed session to protect the reputations of those involved until the conclusions are made public. That request was denied by Sen. Cain.

Davis then asked the committee to consider investigating the communications of non-partisan staff at the Office of Policy and Legal Analysis, which he said had shown favor to Democrats. Cain said Davis' request would be placed alongside other proposals before the committee. "But I want to say up front, I have complete confidence in the OPLA staff and in their integrity," Cain said.

But the federal investigation into the state Department of Labor has the potential of polarizing the Government Oversight Committee in ways that other issues haven't. The new findings by the federal Department of Labor were critical of LePage - who claims the report was political retribution by President Obama.

Republican Rep. Lance Harvell, of Farmington, says Democrats looking to dig up more red meat from their own probe of the hearing officer incident are wasting the panel's time. Instead, he says the committee should be glad that LePage brought some attention to some erroneous practices by the hearing officers, problems that were confirmed by the federal investigation.

"If out of this comes that, OK, a hand slap to the governor about his approach to this, and yet the problem is fixed - thank God, it got done," Harvell says. "It's too bad it had to get done this way."

Sen. Emily Cain says that should the committee decide to go forward with a full investigation, it will be to make sure that the kind of remedies that Harvell referenced are actually taking place.

"It's our job now to take a look at all the information before us and say, 'What needs to be fixed here? What happened that should or shouldn't have? And what can we learn from it?'" Cain said.

Both GOP Sen. Roger Katz and Cain condemned statements made by those outside the committee calling for retribution against LePage. Yesterday, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson said the governor should be impeached for violating the public trust. The committee meets next on March 28.



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