AUGUSTA –– The Maine Human Rights Commission declined Monday to reopen a religious discrimination case against Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro, despite Gov. Paul LePage’s intervention on behalf of the owners of the popular restaurant.

LePage’s involvement elevated the profile of the case and prompted accusations that the governor was meddling in the work of a state agency that investigates bias claims in employment, housing and education. LePage, in turn, has suggested that he plans to form a task force to examine the commission’s work.

“The commission is a quasi-independent agency, and is supposed to be immune from the sort of politicking that has happened in this case,” the commission’s executive director, Amy Sneirson, wrote to commission members before Monday’s decision. “Only by retaining our independence and integrity can the commission continue to do its work, which includes investigating claims of discrimination by the state itself.”

An attorney for the complainant said her client, Allina Diaz, will likely sue in federal court “to be out of reach of unnamed Maine politicians.”

“We need a system free of influence,” said attorney Rebecca Webber.

The LePage administration did not respond to a request for comment.

EVIDENCE OF RELIGIOUS BIAS

In November, the commission found “reasonable grounds” that the co-owner of Moody’s Diner, Dan Beck, had discriminated against Diaz, a waitress, because she is not religious, then created a hostile workplace. At the time, Diaz was dating and living with Beck’s son.

Beck, who is devoutly religious, had reportedly told the two to seek employment elsewhere “because of their destructive lifestyle and not taking a path to Jesus.”

Beck and his attorneys have steadfastly denied any workplace discrimination and said the parents were merely trying to give their son personal advice on his relationship with Diaz.

The two sides were preparing to enter into settlement negotiations – called conciliation – earlier this year when LePage, during a meeting with Beck, called Sneirson to raise concerns about the investigation.

In the tense phone conversation Feb. 6, recounted in a memo written by Sneirson, LePage accused the commission’s investigator of improper actions and of failing to provide the commission with a complete copy of an audiotape of a conversation among Beck, his son and Diaz.

The investigator’s report called the recording “a critical piece of evidence in this case … (that) demonstrates that religious discrimination did occur here.” But LePage and his staff argued that the commission may have come to a different conclusion about the case if it had been given access to the complete recording.

LePage requested that Sneirson postpone the conciliation meeting so his office could review the case.

The conciliation meeting continued as planned, and Sneirson contacted Attorney General Janet Mills’ office about the phone call from LePage. In the ensuing weeks, LePage’s legal counsel, Cynthia Montgomery, asked the commission to reopen the investigation and suggested the governor planned to create a task force to “examine the work of the commission,” according to a timeline of events presented to commission members.

LEPAGE REQUEST CALLED UPSETTING

LePage has yet to sign a financial order that would allow the commission to transfer $4,000 from commission fees to another program within the agency to hire temporary help.

Commissioners discussed the case for more than half an hour Monday in a closed-door session. During the public session that followed, the LePage administration’s request for a new investigation failed because no member made a motion to reopen the case. The commission later voted not to sue Beck; it typically pursues only a handful of legal cases per year because of the staff time required.

Beck referred comment to his attorney, Robert Brooks, after the meeting. Brooks did not respond to a request for comment.

Webber, the attorney for Diaz, opposed the administration’s request to reopen the case and said it was “beyond inappropriate” for LePage to be involved in the case and withhold funds from the agency.

In her memo to commissioners, Sneirson wrote that she was “extremely upset” about the events that led to the commission having to consider reopening the case. She called it “highly unfortunate” that the commission’s rules “allowed a third party not involved in the case at all to force us to this point.”

Sneirson said the commission should revise those rules to ensure that only parties to a claim can request a new investigation.

A HISTORY OF MEDDLING ISSUES

This is not the first time that LePage has become involved in employer-employee issues and the organizations charged with resolving potential conflicts.

In 2013, LePage summoned unemployment claims hearing officers to a meeting at the Blaine House where he chastised them for their adjudication of unemployment benefits disputes. The U.S. Department of Labor solicitor general later described the meeting as inappropriate.

Also, questions arose last year about whether LePage was involved in the head of the Maine Workers’ Compensation Board’s decision to remove an injury claims resolution officer from cases involving the NewPage paper mill in Rumford. NewPage officials had expressed concerns about workers’ compensation plans in a meeting with senior LePage administration officials.