Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to remove a mural from the Maine Department of Labor’s headquarters in March had nothing to do with the painting’s pro-labor content, LePage told Brian Williams of NBC this week during an event in New York.

Appearing Monday with nine other governors for an education summit hosted by the network, LePage said he ordered the mural removed and placed “under safe lock and key” because the $60,000 that the state spent on it came from a fund dedicated to providing benefits to unemployed workers.

“They robbed that account to build a mural,” LePage said. “Until they pay for it, it stays hidden.”

LePage’s account on live national television differed from his past explanation that the mural offered a one-sided view of Maine’s labor history. It also differed from the arguments of state attorneys who are defending LePage’s decision in a lawsuit claiming that the mural’s removal violated the First Amendment protection of free speech.

The attorneys have never argued that the funding for the mural was a reason for its removal. Instead, they have said the governor’s actions are protected because they represented his political views, so-called “government speech.”

In a briefing to the court Aug. 8, Attorney General William Schneider said that the mural depicted the views of the Baldacci administration, and that the LePage administration has a right to express its own views.

The 36-foot-long 11-panel mural depicts the state’s labor history, including a shoe workers’ strike in Lewiston, female shipbuilders and striking papermakers in Jay.

In the days after its removal on March 26, LePage said it favored organized labor at the expense of business interests.

“I’m trying to send a message to everyone in the state that the state of Maine looks at employees and employers equally, neutrally and on balance,” he said in an interview on the Boston-based Howie Carr radio show. “The mural sends a message that we’re one-sided, and I don’t want to send that message.”

A group of Maine residents sued in U.S. District Court in April, seeking to restore the mural to its place in a waiting room at the department’s headquarters. They claim that its removal violated the artist’s First Amendment rights.

Jeffrey Young, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said Tuesday that LePage is changing his explanation now because his initial one hasn’t worked with the public.

Laura Fortman, who was Maine’s labor commissioner in 2008, when the department bought the mural from the artist Judy Taylor of Tremont, said Tuesday that the department used federal dollars earmarked for administrative costs when it commissioned the work for its new headquarters in Augusta.

Nobody lost any benefits to which they were entitled, she said, and the U.S. Department of Labor signed off on the purchase.

“There has never been any question of the appropriateness of the expenditure,” she said.

Adam Fisher, a spokesman for the department, said Tuesday that funding for the mural was provided by the various bureaus in the Department of Labor.

He said the funding amounts for the $60,000 mural were determined by the relative size of the bureaus. Because the Bureau of Unemployment is the largest bureau, it provided the largest share: $38,000.

He said the bureau used Reed Act funds, federal dollars to be used for administrative purposes or for unemployment benefits.

If the Reed Act money had not been spent on the mural, Fisher said, “it would have been left in the trust fund for unemployment benefits, just as the governor said.”

LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said LePage has been concerned about the funding for the mural since he learned about it in the spring, but reporters have failed to take notice.

“It’s an important part of the story,” she said. “It seems like the media didn’t want to cover that aspect of it.”

Judge John Woodcock Jr., who last spring denied the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order that would have restored the mural, is expected to hear oral arguments next month before deciding whether the case should go to trial.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: tbell@pressherald.com

Twitter: TomBellMaine