AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage asked the Maine Human Rights Commission to postpone a conciliation proceeding and threatened to go to court if it didn’t, according to a memo written by the commission’s executive director.

The governor, however, maintains he was not interfering, but only trying to make sure there was no “ethical breach” in a religious discrimination case involving Moody’s Diner. He said restaurant representatives told him the investigation was biased and an audiotape used in the case had been edited.

The postponement was denied by Amy Sneirson, the commission’s executive director. LePage said that prompted him to direct an attorney in his office to investigate the case, and he’s also going to appoint a task force by executive order to review the operation of the state agency that enforces Maine’s anti-discrimination laws.

The memo from Sneirson states she received a phone call from the governor just hours before the parties in the case were to meet with the commission to try to settle the case out of court.

A report issued by the commission in October found there were “reasonable grounds” to show that the diner and its co-owner, whom the report states “is extremely religious,” had discriminated and retaliated against a waitress, telling her things such as she was “not following Jesus” while dating his son.

The Feb. 6 conciliation hearing was unsuccessful, and the commission will now decide whether it will file a civil suit against Moody’s, the landmark Waldoboro diner founded in 1927.

Sneirson’s memo was obtained through the state Freedom of Access Act.

In the memo, Sneirson, who is an attorney, states that at 10:45 a.m. on Feb. 6, she received a call from the governor, who said he had “some folks from Moody’s Diner with him and they were talking about the case.” He said they had raised some doubts in his mind about whether the commission’s investigation was biased.

LePage asked Sneirson to postpone the conciliation scheduled for 12:10 p.m. that day “so he could issue an executive order to investigate” if there had been “improper action” by the commission’s investigator.

“If we don’t cooperate, the governor will go to court,” Sneirson states in the memo.

Sneirson told LePage she would be “glad to meet with him to talk about his concerns, but that the upcoming conciliation was a separate matter,” the memo states.

AG: NO AUTHORITY TO REVIEW CASE

Minutes later, she and her staff attorney called the state Attorney General’s Office, which represents the commission in legal matters. She spoke with Attorney General Janet Mills and Assistant Attorney General Susan Herman, who asked Sneirson to make a written record of her conversation with the governor.

Mills and Herman told Sneirson “the governor had no authority to review the case, that there was no such executive action he could take,” the memo says.

A little before noon, Herman told Sneirson she had spoken to the governor’s staff attorney, Cynthia Montgomery, who told her the governor would not pursue an executive action, but asked Montgomery to review the case herself.

“Cynthia asked if we would reschedule the conciliation because if we did so it might make things less heated,” according to the memo.

Montgomery asked Sneirson to postpone the conciliation so that she could review the case, but Sneirson told her she was “not inclined to postpone.”

A week after the call from the governor, the commission sent his office what Sneirson called a “routine” request to approve funds for the agency, about $4,000 that was to be used to hire a fill-in temp. On Monday, she was informed by the governor’s office that he was not going to sign the request, but he gave no reason.

Sneirson could not recall any such financial requests being denied in her nearly three years at the commission.

LEPAGE DENIES TRYING TO INTERFERE

LePage, in an interview in his office Tuesday, said the representatives he met with from the diner told him the commission’s investigator edited a tape recording made by the waitress. LePage said the commissioners got only a “sound bite,” not the whole tape.

“I said, ‘That sounds strange to me,’ so I called over there,” LePage said.

The commission investigator’s report includes a one-page transcript that it states is “from the recording.”

The governor denied he was trying to interfere in an agency case that already had been ruled on.

“The people of Maine are my job, and if somebody is trying to do something behind the scenes and sneaky, I would try to look into it,” he said.

LePage said he has held up the commission’s financial request and won’t approve it until his staff attorney “gets back to me … to make sure everything is aboveboard. As soon as I get that, yea or nay, if it’s yea, the financial order will be signed immediately; if it’s nay, it will never be signed until we get to the bottom of this.”

Sneirson said her investigator “did an excellent job and I don’t believe she did anything improper. … I stand by her fully.”

RELIGIOUS OWNER, SON’S ROMANCE

The Moody’s case began in January 2014 when the waitress, Allina Diaz, filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission. Commission investigator Michele Dion’s 14-page report details Diaz’s accusations and the responses of Moody’s co-owner Dan Beck.

The case revolved mostly around Beck, a devout Presbyterian who was upset that his son was dating and living with Diaz, who was not religious.

For example, Diaz said Beck told her that she and his son were “not following Jesus,” according to the report. He asked Diaz, who has worked at Moody’s since 2002, and his son to find someplace else to work “because of their destructive lifestyle and not taking a path to Jesus,” the report states.

Beck told the investigator that if Diaz “had not been in a romantic relationship with his son there would be no issue,” and that he “took no action” against Diaz on a religious basis.

After a public hearing in November, the commission ruled there were “reasonable grounds” to find against the popular diner.

The commission’s five members – three of whom were appointed by LePage – voted unanimously to find that Beck and the restaurant had created a “hostile work environment” based on religion; had discriminated against Diaz on a religious basis; and had retaliated against her through working conditions because she had filed a complaint with the commission.

PRIOR INVOLVEMENT IN LABOR DISPUTE

LePage has gotten involved in employer-employee disputes before.

A U.S. Department of Labor review released in February 2014 said he endangered the fair-hearings process in 2013 when he summoned unemployment-claims hearing officers to a lunch at the Blaine House to discuss his concerns about inconsistent results in appeals cases.

The federal review showed that the administration’s labor commissioners intervened in the work of hearing officers by questioning them about decisions they made in individual cases, which “could be perceived as an attempt to influence the appeals decision-making process in favor of employers.”

Holly C. O’Brien, the regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Labor and Office of the Solicitor General, wrote that although the agency found no statistical evidence that LePage’s meeting with the hearing officers influenced appeals decisions, the effects could surface later.

As a result, the federal department planned to closely monitor Maine’s performance and do quarterly case reviews to ensure that all parties are treated fairly.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Augusta, can be contacted at:

[email protected] or www.pinetreewatchdog.org.