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Maine Panel Weighs Probe Into Gov's Role in Unemployment Decisions
04/26/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

The Legislature's Government Oversight Committee is cautiously wading into the contentious matter of last month's Blaine House luncheon meeting between Gov. Paul LePage and several unemployment hearing officers. The hearing officers claim LePage attempted to influence their decisions on unemployment benefits to favor employers, a charge the governor squarely denies. As A.J. Higgins reports, the oversight committee has decided to make some preliminary inquiries before determining whether a full-blown probe is needed.

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The Government Oversight Committee decided to wait two weeks before making what could be one of the panel's most politically challenging decisions: a staff investigation of whether Republican Gov. Paul LePage attempted to improperly influence the decisions of state labor unemployment insurance hearing officers.

LePage has already announced his intention to name a blue ribbon commission to determine whether the unemployment appeals process is fair to all parties. And because the hearing officers' salaries are paid by the federal government, the U.S. Department of Labor may also be looking into what took place at the March 21 meeting at the governor's mansion.

But what if the governor's commission doesn't address the March luncheon, and what if the feds keep their findings to themselves?

"It's really important to know the answers to those questions so that we can then decide where we want to be, and knowing the answers to those questions in two weeks or not, we'll be able to move ahead," says Sen. Emily Cain.

Sen. Emily CainCain (right), an Orono Democrat, is co-chair of the GOC, the bipartisan investigative arm of the Legislature that has subpoena powers. The committee oversees operations of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability and has earned a reputation for keeping politics out of recent probes.

But the charges involving LePage are different. None of the hearing officers have publicly come forward explain how they believe the governor attempted to influence them - an accusation LePage denies. Most of the information regarding the claims surfaced in the Lewiston Sun Journal, which cited anonymous sources which are off limits to the committee.

That's why Cain says the panel is asking OPEGA Executive Director Beth Ashcroft to make some preliminary inquiries of the governor's commission and the U.S. Department of Labor.

"We have so little information about what these groups are looking at," Cain says. "We have asked her to find out whether or not they are considering this question of undue influence on the hearing officers, and what is the time frame for their work, because we don't want this to drag on for months and months and months. And will we have access to the work that they're doing?"

Although the committee's decision was unanimous, things got off to a rocky start when it appeared several Republicans and Democrats on Cain's committee were on a collision course. The original agenda item would have had the lawmakers weighing a request from the panel's co-chair, Rep. Chuck Kruger, to have OPEGA investigate whether there was quote "perceived or actual improper influence from any public official" during the Blaine House meeting.

Sen. David Burns, a Whiting Republican, immediately said he could not support the plan. "I think it's inappropriate for us to use this resource, OPEGA's resources, to be investigating the chief executive's office, and I would strongly oppose this recommendation," Burns said.

Rep. Lance HarvellFarmington GOP Rep. Lance Harvell said he was also having a hard time getting behind the Democrats' proposed investigation.

"The word perceived is somewhat troubling to me," Harvell (right) said. "When you're actually dealing with this, you're actually dealing with whether there was actually something improper -- not maybe the perception of something improper. I mean, we can perceive about anything in life."

The issue was diffused when Republican Sen. Roger Katz, of Augusta, and Cain developed a compromise question to make initial inquiries that might provide answers to Kruger's questions. The committee unanimously approved that approach and will meet again in two weeks to see if further action is needed.

Photos by A.J. Higgins.


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