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LePage Officials Deny Gov Tried to Intimidate Labor Hearing Officers
04/11/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Members of his administration are emphatically rejecting claims that Gov. Paul LePage personally initimidated federally-funded hearing officers working at the state Department of Labor. The allegations surfaced in today's edition of the Lewiston Sun Journal. Citing unnamed sources, the paper reports that LePage pressured hearing officers last month to decide unemployment-benefit cases in favor of business owners over workers. A.J. Higgins has more.

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The paper's confidential sources imply that LePage bullied eight labor hearing officers during a meeting with them last month and demanded that they favor employers in an unemployment claims appeal process that's supposed to be impartial.

According to the story, the governor was upset that officers were doing a poor job by allowing workers to win too manyunemployment claims cases. But the governor's spokesman, Peter Steele, says nothing of the kind happened when LePage invited the federally-funded state employees to the Blaine House.

"The portrayal that's out there now in the media is not accurate," Steele says. "The governor did not intimidate anybody, he did not scold anybody, he wasn't trying to tell people how to do their job, there was nothing like that. There's a lot more to this story. They chose not to use that information."

The Lewiston Sun Journal says it was later approached by unnamed sources about the meeting, which occurred just before the governor departed for a Jamaican vacation last month.

Rex Rhoades, executive editor of the Lewiston Sun Journal, says the paper granted confidentiality to the sources because it was concerned over possible retaliation from the governor's office over activities that appeared to run contrary to the normally accepted unemployment appeals process.

"The experts we talked to thought it was very unusual that a person in the governor's position, with the power that a governor has in this state, would intervene in what they saw as a semi-judicial kind of determining of benefits for people," Rhoades says.

Steele says LePage was simply attempting to alert the hearing officers to complaints he had received. Those complaints, Steele says, were from employers who have given up on the appeals system because they believe it is weighted against them.

The governor and Labor Department officials would like to propose some rule changes in the process, particularly as they pertain to hearsay evidence. But the allegations against the governor could delay that process. If hearing officers do come forward to publicly claim that LePage tried to obstruct the appeals process in unemployment cases, he could face intense scrutiny. Jeff Young is a labor attorney at McTeague Higbee in Tospham.

"Think about it - if you were an unemployed individual seeking benefits, and came in there knowing that the governor had told the hearing officer that he or she was finding too often in favor of employees, do you think you'd be getting a fair hearing? I don't think so," Young says.

Legislative leaders and labor officials said they are exploring all options to ensure that hearing officers are permitted to work independently. Some Democrats are questioning whether the incident should be reviewed by the Attorney General's Office, or the Legislature's government oversight committee, for possible criminal violations.

The LePage administration says it's open to the scrutiny.



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