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Maine Gov Denies Pressuring Unemployment Hearing Officers
04/24/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Gov. Paul LePage says he did not pressure hearing officers at the Unemployment Insurance Commission to rule in favor of employers in unemployment compensation cases. According to a report first published in the Lewiston Sun Journal, the governor met with 10 officers at a Blaine House luncheon last month and allegedly pressured them to stop ruling in favor of workers in their appeals. The president of the Maine Employment Lawyers Association has since filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor about the meeting. But, as Susan Sharon reports, the governor is taking issue with that, too.

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Speaking at an impromptu meeting with reporters in Auburn Tuesday afternoon, Gov. LePage says the tone of the Blaine House luncheon described by anonymous hearing officers to the Lewiston Sun Journal differs from his perception and intent. He describes it as a "cordial" gathering and says he never pressured anyone to do anything.

"They had agreed they were going to work with their supervisors, look for the ambiguity in the laws, send it over to our office, we would put a governor's bill upstairs and try to get the ambiguity out of the law," he says. "Now, how this became negative and nasty, I don't know. "

The Sun Journal reported that several people who attended the luncheon meeting said they felt "abused, harassed and bullied" by the governor's tone and rhetoric and worried they could lose their jobs if they did not skew the outcomes of their appeals cases in favor of employers. The attendees' names were witheld by the paper because of the fear of retribution.

According to the sources, the governor said the "actions of the hearing officers were destroying the business climate in Maine." And while the hearing officers, whose salaries are federally funded, reportedly tried to explain that they are required to adhere to federal guidelines in deciding unemployment insurance claims, the governor later released a memo criticizing their work.

The memo highlights two cases in which "erroneous rulings on evidence" were allegedly made against employers. But the governor says he isn't upset about just a couple of cases. He says he's been getting complaints about Maine's unemployment claims process from hundreds of employers.

"Hundreds and hundreds - emails, letters, Saturday mornings, everyplace I go," he says. "It's common, but let me tell you one thing more important: Attorney Webbert, he's pulling the wool over Maine peoples' eyes."

"Attorney Webbert" is David Webbert, the president of the Maine Employment Lawyers Association, which represents workers in employment cases, including claims for unemployment compensation benefits. Last week Webbert wrote a letter to the administrator of the Office of Unemployment Insurance at the U.S. Department of Labor on behalf of his group's 50 members asking for an investigation of the governor's actions.

"His spokesperson and his top advisor said the meeting was called because of complaints by businesses about specific cases, and that is an unlawful reason to be talking to impartial hearing officers right there, and that's his own people saying that," Webbert says. "So, the evidence comes from the written documents and the governor's own people."

In his letter to the administrator, Webbert writes that hearing officers started having problems on their jobs soon after Gov. LePage took office. They began receiving unprecedented criticism from their supervisors about appeal decisions in favor of employees, and later learned that their administrative assistants had been "secretly instructed to send all draft appeal decisions in favor of employees to supervisors for further review."

Webbert writes that the practice was ended a few months later "only because it was causing a major backlog in issuing appeal decisions." Webbert says his information is based on published reports and emails exchanged between the hearing officers after the governor's luncheon.

"The emails that have come out were written by the hearing officers right after the event on March 21, and those are very strong evidence of what happened," Webbert says. "Obviously, they wouldn't be telling each other false things about what - you know, they both were at the same meeting, so the evidence is unusually strong. It's got nothing to do with me."

"I think Webbert made it up," LePage says.

Susan Sharon: "The complaints?"

Gov. Paul LePage: "Yeah. I do. If he's got witnesses, bring 'em forward. Because anonymous letters, in my book, go into trash cans."

Last week, federal auditors paid a visit to the Maine Department of Labor. Gov. LePage says he was told by the acting U.S. Labor Secretary that their audit was "routine" and not connected to a request for an investigation of his actions. Webbert says he has information to the contrary - that there is an investigation of the March 21 meeting, which will include interviews with the hearing officers themselves.

In the meantime, Gov. LePage has named the two co-chairs of a special commission he's created to investigate Maine's unemployment compensation system. They are Waterville attorney George Jabar and former Maine Supreme Court Justice Daniel Wathen.


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