A spokesman for Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said she was “very troubled” by allegations that Gov. Paul LePage threatened to withhold funding to the Good Will-Hinckley school over its hiring of Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves as president.
Mills had no comment on whether she would investigate the claim, Timothy Feeley, Mills’ spokesman, said Thursday, but some House members are calling for an investigation and perhaps impeachment proceedings.
LePage, meanwhile, issued a statement Thursday reaffirming his opposition to the school’s hiring of Eves – who has been a critic of charter schools – and the process by which he was hired.
“This back-room deal between cronies is exactly the kind of political corruption I came to Augusta to fight against,” the governor said in a prepared statement. “I will not stand for it and neither will the Maine people.”
LePage didn’t directly acknowledge that he had threatened to cut state funding for the school. However, he noted that annual state funding of $530,000 for the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences charter school is an investment to ensure the school’s success. “To have the school run by someone so opposed to charter schools would be very troublesome,” he said.
“Speaker Eves has been an ardent foe of charter schools for his entire political career, then he turns around and gets hired to run a charter school … for a cushy job worth about $150,000 in total compensation. To provide half-a-million dollars in taxpayer funding to a charter school that would be headed by Maine’s most vehement anti-charter-school politician is not only the height of hypocrisy, it is absolutely unacceptable.”
‘THE WORST KIND OF VENDETTA POLITICS’
Eves said Wednesday that he believes LePage blackmailed the school for at-risk youths by threatening to cut state funding. He said that could potentially cause the loss of another $2 million in private funding for the school, which has an annual budget of $4.5 million.
“The governor’s actions represent the worst kind of vendetta politics Maine has ever seen,” Eves said. “If it goes unchecked, no legislator will feel safe in voting his conscience for fear that the governor will go after the legislator’s family and livelihood.”
It’s not clear whether LePage violated any state law, but there is a statute that deals with improper influence, specifically Chapter 25, section 603 of the Maine Crime Code.
Several members of the House of Representatives have started exploring whether LePage can be disciplined or impeached.
Under the Maine Constitution, the House has the power of impeachment and the Senate would conduct a trial on the charges.
Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, an independent from Friendship, is leading that effort.
“There needs to be an investigation,” Evangelos said Thursday. “We’ll be asking the House clerk how to begin this.”
Evangelos said four other House members have joined him – independent Ben Chipman of Portland and Democrats Charlotte Warren of Hallowell, Robert Alley of Beals and Pinny Beebe-Center of Rockland.
“I think at the very least this was an abuse of authority,” Evangelos said. “People need to stand up and say enough is enough.”
Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett called LePage’s actions “an unconscionable abuse of power” and said his party is “committed to pushing for a thorough investigation that will hold the governor accountable for his actions.”
Some Republicans have expressed concerns as well.
Senate President Michael Thibodeau issued a statement saying that he was concerned about what has happened to Eves and his family.
“I am very saddened by this situation and shocked by what is being alleged,” he said. “Nearly all legislators depend on a career outside of the State House to provide for their families.”
Through a spokesman, House Republican Leader Kenneth Fredette declined to comment.
ABUSES IN OTHER STATES INVESTIGATED
Governors elsewhere have been investigated for abuses of power.
Former Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry was indicted last year and his case has similarities to the allegations against LePage.
The charges against Perry were filed after he threatened to veto state funding for a district attorney’s office unless the district attorney resigned. Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, had been charged with drunken driving but declined to step down from her job. Perry then vetoed $7.5 million for the public integrity unit in Lehmberg’s office.
That case is pending. Perry has tried to get the case dismissed, but two requests have been denied so far.
Another similar case, in 2005, involved former West Virginia governor and now U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat. He was sued by Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, after Manchin threatened to increase government scrutiny of Massey’s operations because Blankenship had contributed millions of dollars into a campaign against a pension bond supported by Manchin. The suit was dropped in a settlement in 2007 that included no financial payments.
And in 2002, then acting Gov. Jane Swift of Massachusetts was sued after she fired two Massachusetts Turnpike Authority members for voting on toll increases.
If Mills, Maine’s attorney general, were to investigate, it would once again highlight the tenuous relationship between her, a prominent Democrat elected by the Legislature, and the state’s Republican governor. Since Mills was re-elected by the Legislature in 2013, after Democrats took control of the House and Senate, LePage has challenged her authority repeatedly.
Twice, she has declined to represent the state and the LePage administration in court cases that sought to reduce welfare benefits. In one of those cases, she actively opposed LePage’s complaint, and the governor has accused her of injecting politics into her decisions.