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Federal Labor Officials Investigate LePage Administration
04/17/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Governor Paul LePage has announced the creation of a blue ribbon task force to examine Maine's unemployment compensation system. The news comes a week after reports surfaced that Gov. Paul LePage may have tried to bully state labor department hearing officers into favoring employers in disputed unemployment-benefit cases. It also coincides with a visit to Maine's capitol by U.S. Department of Labor investigators.

Gov. Paul LePage's announcement of his decision to establish a Blue Ribbon Commission to investigate Maine's entire unemployment compensation system has been eclipsed by news that the State Labor Department is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor. The governor's office would neither confirm nor deny the federal investigation rumors and state labor officials also declined comment. But the visitors log at the state Department of Labor indicated the federal officials were there Tuesday. And State Sen. Troy Jackson, the Democratic assistant Senate Majority leader, said he got his information from the top.

"The commissioner of Labor told us yesterday that U.S. DOL is here investigating...this particular incident," Jackson said.

Allegations that the governor had attempted to bully the federally-funded state hearing officers surfaced last week when the Lewiston Sun Journal published a report citing confidential sources who suggested LePage bullied eight labor hearing officers during a meeting with them last month. According to the report, the governor wanted employers to be favored in an unemployment claims appeal process that's supposed to be impartial. Members of the governor's staff and the labor department staunchly maintain LePage did nothing of the sort. Instead, they said LePage was simply attempting to alert the hearing officers to complaints he had received from employers who had given up on an appeals system they believe is weighted against them.

"The real distraction here is that we have anonymous allegations and what the governor wants to focus on are the real problems with our unemployment system," said Adrienne Bennett, Governor LePage's press secretary.

She said LePage simply wants to ensure that the hearing appeals process is fair and that if some rule changes are necessary, that those changes get made. The day after the federal investigators arrived in Maine, however, LePage fired off a press release announcing he would sign an executive order establishing a Blue Ribbon Commission to investigate Maine's entire unemployment compensation system. In the release, the governor referenced what he referred to as politically motivated demands for the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate the lunch meeting he had with the hearing officers.

"The distraction here is that these allegations have come about," Bennett said. "The governor has had concerns for quite some time now about the unemployment system. So he is focused on insuring that all Mainers, whether they're employers or employees, have an equitable system and receive the due process that they deserve."

The commission, Bennett said, will include representatives of both employers and employees and its goal is to ensure Maine's Unemployment Insurance system provides benefits for workers who are rightly entitled to them, while ensuring businesses are not charged when they appropriately let employees go. Additionally, she said, the Commission will review the rules and laws governing the system to assure Mainers they are consistently applied. Democrats are already skeptical over the impartiality that LePage will show when appoints the commission's members, particularly those who are supposed to be representing employees. Sen. John Patrick is co-chair of the Legislature's Labor Commerce Research and Economic Development Committee.

"From my standpoint, he'll probably have one or two lackeys from Mardens taking the stand for working men and women, what we need is to have fairness in this place and there's no fairness going on now when you got a guy running rampant saiding there's fraud in every doggone thing," Patrick said.

Members of LePage's commission are expected to be named by the end of the week. Meanwhile, the federal DOL investigators are continuing their work.

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