AUGUSTA – Gov. Paul LePage used his own editorial judgment when he described the IRS as the “new Gestapo” in his radio address last week.

But the governor acknowledged Monday that his reference to the Nazi secret police “clouded” his message about the federal health care law.

LePage’s written statement stopped short of a public apology, which had been demanded by national and local Jewish groups. However, Emily Chaleff, director of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, said LePage called her to personally apologize for his remarks.

At the same time, LePage told WMTW-TV in an interview Monday: “It was never intended to offend anyone and if someone’s offended, then they ought to be goddamned mad at the federal government.”

Monday was the third day of a controversy that has drawn national media attention, over a comment that LePage added to his weekly radio address, which aired Saturday.

Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s communications director, often writes the governor’s radio message.

She wrote the address for last week, but said the governor inserted the “Gestapo” reference after she and the staff had finished editing it.

Bennett said the comment initiated a “healthy dialogue” among the staff, but remained in the prepared remarks when LePage recorded the address Friday. It was not ad-libbed during the recording.

Some of LePage’s critics originally believed that the administration had approved the comment to spur opposition to the health care law, which divides the American public.

The governor said in Monday’s written statement that it was not his “intent to insult anyone, especially the Jewish Community, or minimize the fact that millions of people were murdered.”

He added, “Clearly, what has happened is that the use of the word Gestapo has clouded my message. Obamacare is forcing the American people to buy health insurance or else pay a tax.”

The “Gestapo” comment was in reference to a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires Americans who aren’t insured by their employers or Medicaid to buy health insurance or pay annual penalties when they file their tax returns.

The provision, known more broadly as the individual mandate, was the subject of a multistate lawsuit.

Maine was a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The mandate was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court late last month.

LePage said during his radio address that the court’s ruling has “made America less free.”

“We the people have been told there is no choice,” he said. “You must buy health insurance or pay the new Gestapo — the IRS.”

The Gestapo was Nazi Germany’s secret police force under Adolf Hitler, who imprisoned and murdered millions of people during World War II.

Derrek L. Shulman, the Anti-Defamation League’s New England regional director, said LePage’s statement Monday was “disappointing and insufficient.”

“The statement doesn’t demonstrate an understanding or recognition that a comparison between a Nazi police force and a modern governmental agency has no place in modern politics or anywhere else,” Shulman said. “It’s absurd.”

Maine House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said that while he would have chosen a different word, the uproar over the use of “Gestapo” is “much ado about nothing.”

“Politicians from both sides of the aisle have invoked the word ‘Gestapo’ in the past to reference heavy-handed government tactics,” Nutting said, adding that Democrats’ protests of the governor’s comments are “manufactured outrage” that “indicates to me that their party is desperately seeking a way to become relevant.”

The response to LePage’s comment has been as divided as the debate over the individual mandate. LePage has been attacked by Democrats but applauded by some online commenters and in email responses to a Portland Press Herald story.

Many emails refer to the hiring of 16,500 IRS agents to enforce the health care law as evidence that the federal government is imposing a punitive law on the public.

The 16,500 figure originated from a 2009 estimate by Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee, which handles federal tax legislation.

In February, the Treasury Department released an updated IRS budget request for fiscal year 2012 showing that it is seeking about 1,269 employees to implement the health care law.

The mandate penalty will be imposed by 2016.

Estimates from the Kaiser Family Foundation put the penalty at $695 for each uninsured adult — 2.5 percent of family income.

Exemptions will be granted based on financial hardship, religious beliefs and people without coverage for less than three months.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that 4 million people will end up paying the penalty.

However, there are questions about how effective the IRS will be in collecting penalty amounts because of the law’s strict enforcement limitations. The analysis notes that legal penalties cannot be assessed and the law does not allow the IRS to seize bank accounts or garnish wages.

The individual mandate was originally a concept derived from the conservative Heritage Foundation, which introduced the measure in 1989 as a counterpoint to Democratic calls for a single-payer health care system.

In 1993, U.S. Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., proposed an individual mandate bill signed by 19 Republican co-sponsors as an alternative to President Clinton’s health care overhaul.

The proposal failed, as did Clinton’s health care effort.

 

State House Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: stevemistler