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Maine Special Commission to Review Unemployment Cases
09/19/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A special commission on unemployment will conduct a random review of hearing officers' decisions to determine whether Gov. Paul LePage pressured them to rule in favor of employers in unemployment cases. AS A.J. Higgins reports, the move comes amid a separate federal investigation.

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When members of Gov. Paul LePage's Blue Ribbon Commission on Unemployment met last week to begin a review of the hearing process in contested unemployment benefit cases, the panel's leaders said the bulk of their work would focus whether the system was fair to employers and workers.

There wasn't supposed to a lot of attention paid to a March 21 luncheon that the governor had with several unemployment hearing officers. Following that luncheon, the Lewiston Sun Journal reported that LePage allegedly told several unnamed hearing officers that he thought too many cases were being decided in favor of workers, that the system was biased against employers and that the officers were doing a poor job.

Beth Ashcroft, executive director of the Office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability, says the commission has now decided to conduct reviews of 360 randomly-selected unemployment cases to see if there were any significant changes in the outcome of cases before and after the governor's exchange with the officers.

"They had selected a portion of that sample to be cases that had been filed in the last quarter of 2012, and the rest to be - those that had been filed in the first six months of 2013 - thinking that that would give them a view of what was going on prior to the governor's intervention, and then after the governor's intervention," Ashcroft said.

The Legislature's Government Oversight Committee, the policy panel for OPEGA, had initially considered conducting its own investigation, but decided to defer action until the conclusion of a federal review of the incident. Committee member Sen. Roger Katz quizzed Ashcroft on the status of that investigation.

"With respect to the federal investigation, do you know, even procedurally, where they are with that? Had they completed their work? Have they concluded the matter, closed the file, issued a report that we haven't seen?" Katz said. "Do you know even procedurally where they are at this point?"

"No, the last time I had actually heard from them was when I reported to you folks back the last time, in which case they were still in the process of wrapping up their research and taking a look at what all it was they thought they were drawing from that," Ashcroft responded. "As far as I know, they've not issued any report."

Ashcroft says the Government Oversight Committee is awaiting the results of the federal labor officials review, and that of the Blue Ribbon Unemployment Commission. After that, she says the oversight panel reserves the right to launch its own investigation, if the two inquiries fail to address state lawmakers questions.


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