A federal review from the Department of Labor (DOL) shows that Maine Gov. Paul LePage endangered the fair-hearings process last year when he summoned unemployment hearing officers to a mandatory lunch at the Governor’s residence. At the lunch, LePage pressured them to begin ruling in favor of businesses.
The review also found that state labor commissioners intervened by questioning officers about decisions made in individual cases which they believed “could be perceived as an attempt to influence the appeals decision-making process in favor of employers.” What’s more, Maine’s system for handling unemployment appeals does not always meet federal guidelines and needs to be revised according to the DOL.
A furious backlash has ensued despite LePage blowing off the findings as a personal attack by Democrats. In a written statement following the DOL announcement, Gov. LePage said:
“It is also no surprise that the Obama administration’s Department of Labor is speculating my administration somehow tried to influence the hearing process,” said LePage. “This issue has been politically motivated from the start, starting with Democratic activists in Maine and reaching all the way to the White House.”
Democratic responses varied in intensity, but all condemned Gov. LePage’. Chair of the Labor committee Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, played the role of moral statesman:
“This is a good thing because everyone in Maine knows the governor uses the bully pulpit to express his feelings about his political views and politics,” said Patrick. “After this, I wonder how you can trust the governor to move forward fairly and in an unbiased way. The citizens of Maine expect that whether it’s a Democrat, a Republican or a Green, that we are fair to our businesses and employees.
Labor committee co-chair Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, was unsurprised:
“This letter from the U.S. Department of Labor validates that there is definitely cause for concern and that we were on the right side when asking those tough questions, not just about the meeting at the governor’s house but in the process generally. This has been on our agenda every single meeting since this happened. Now that we have it, we’re ready to work it out as a committee to figure out what next steps we should take.”
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, a longtime LePage rival, showed more outraged and called for the governor’s resignation:
“I think he should be impeached,” said Jackson of LePage. “The governor thinks he should be the next [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker, but he should be thinking about being the next [impeached and jailed Illinois Gov.] Rod Blagojevich.”
Both Jackson and Cain are running for Congress in Maine’s 2nd district.
Negative publicity is nothing new for the LePage administration which has made mistake after politically incorrect mistake since being swept into office during 2010’s Tea Party surge.
In the summer of 2013, the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) named LePage the nation’s worst governor. Their unflattering review of his performance claimed that “Augusta is a dangerous place for anyone who gets in the way of Gov. LePage’s ALEC-written agenda,” adding:
The first-term governor packed his administration with lobbyists and used his office to promote their environmental-deregulation agenda, and allegedly went so far as to fire a state employee who testified in favor of policies the administration opposed.
Gov. LePage also attempted to gut his state’s open records act, and is under investigation by the federal government for trying to bully employees of the state Department of Labor into deciding more cases in favor of business.
The negative news may hurt LePage in the polls, but Maine’s fiercely independent political spirit makes election outcomes difficult to predict. The last Public Policy Polling showed LePage trailing his Democratic opponent Congressman Mike Michaud by two points though the 10-percent undecided demographic is leaning in his direction.
But the hearing officers scandal seems to be picking up steam with the electorate. According to The Nation‘s John Nichols, an “It’s time for Paul LePage to resign” petition, circulated by State Rep. Diane Russel, had gained 20,000 signatures by last Friday.