A lawyers group formally asked the federal government on Monday to investigate claims that Gov. Paul LePage pressured unemployment hearing officers to side with business owners over workers.
LePage has violated federal laws requiring the impartial and prompt administration of unemployment insurance benefit, said David Webbert, president of the Maine Employment Lawyers Association, in a letter he sent Monday to Gay Gilbert, administrator of the federal Office of Unemployment Insurance, and Daniel Petrole, the deputy inspector general who oversees criminal investigations relating to the federal Department of Labor.
Federal law mandates prompt payment of unemployment benefits, Webbert wrote, but LePage has created policies that delay payments, and he has put political pressure on hearing officers to deny payments to workers.
He said LePage is “intentionally interfering with the neutrality and basic fairness of the appeals system in order to favor employers over workers.”
The association includes about 50 lawyers who represent workers when either employers or workers appeal an unemployment benefits decision.
At the center of the controversy is a March 21 lunch meeting at the Blaine House attended by LePage and about eight hearing officers and their supervisors.
The officers preside over hearings held to determine whether laid-off workers should receive an unemployment benefit that averages $281 per week.
For businesses, the outcomes affect rates they pay into an unemployment trust that funds the unemployment benefit program. The more unemployment claims or appeal rulings against an employer, the higher the payments to the fund.
According to the Sun Journal newspaper in Lewiston, several of those who attended the lunch meeting said LePage scolded the hearing officers and supervisors for deciding too many cases in favor of unemployed workers.
The hearing officers are state employees in federally funded positions. The U.S. Department of Labor oversees the hearings and the distribution of benefits.
Employers and business groups often criticize the system, saying it’s too easy for fired employees to receive benefits.
Webbert’s claims are false, said LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. She said LePage only wants assurance that appeals are equitable for both employers and employees.
“There was absolutely no political pressure going on in that meeting,” Bennett said Monday night. “It was a meeting about adhering to the law. . . . There was no favoritism.”
The Maine Republican Party on Monday released a statement noting that Webbert has a long history of contributing money to Democratic candidates. In the statement, GOP Chairman Richard Cebra said Webbert has manufactured the controversy for political reasons.
“The partisan politics being played here to attack Governor LePage with anonymous sources making such stunningly false statements is disturbing,” he said.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at