WASHINGTON — If Maine Gov. Paul LePage doesn’t wish to display a mural depicting the state’s labor history, then the U.S. Department of Labor wants back the federal money used to create it
The department said today that LePage violated the terms of a federal grant that paid for most of the mural’s $60,000 cost when he removed the art work from state offices last month.
The request for reimbursement came in a letter to state labor officials from Gay Gilbert, administrator of the U.S. Labor Department’s office of unemployment insurance. The letter was obtained by The Associated Press.
Gilbert’s letter is the latest twist in a growing national dispute over LePage’s decision to remove the 36-foot mural from the state Labor Department headquarters. LePage said it was biased towards organized labor at the expense of his pro-business agenda.
The mural, in place since 2008, depicts scenes that include a paper mill strike in the town of Jay, a strike at a shoe plant in Lewiston, women shipbuilders at Bath Iron Works and former U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, a native of Maine.
Adam Fisher, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Labor, said he did not have any immediate comment on the letter.
LePage’s removal of the mural attracted attention at a time when lawmakers in Wisconsin and other states are considering measures to restrict collective bargaining by public workers. Labor advocates, artists and others say the mural depicts an important part of Maine history and belongs at the state’s Department of Labor office.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said last week that the mural is in storage and awaits transfer to “a suitable venue for public display.” She did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the demand for repayment of federal funds.
The mural was created in large part with a federal grant that provided 63 percent of the cost of art work. Gilbert’s letter said the state must return 63 percent of the current fair market value of the mural, which could now be higher than the $60,000 it cost to create it.
“Alternatively, the state could again display the mural in its headquarters or in another state employment security building,” the letter said.
U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has not commented publicly on the mural dispute. Her spokesman, Carl Fillicio, said she “has monitored the situation and asked staff to look into it.”
LePage’s decision to remove the mural was prompted by an anonymous fax to the governor’s office — signed by “A Secret Admirer” — that said the mural was propaganda in line with “communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.”