AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s investigative committee received two requests Monday for an investigation into allegations that Gov. Paul LePage abused his power when he threatened to withhold state funds from a private school for at-risk children unless the school withdrew a job offer to Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves.

In a letter to the Government Oversight Committee, Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, wrote that allegations that the Republican governor blackmailed Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield “offer a chilling example of a potential overstep of executive authority,” if accurate. Saviello, who has been at odds with the governor in the past, said he was “deeply troubled by recent highly publicized reports suggesting the administration may have used state funding as a tool to target political opponents.”

The second request for an investigation, submitted jointly by a Democrat and two independents, sounded a similar note.

“We consider this to be an act of intimidation, misuse of state funds, abuse of power, conduct unbecoming of a public official sworn to uphold the law, and a violation of Mark Eves’ 14th Amendment rights,” said the letter from Reps. Jeffrey Evangelos, an independent from Friendship, Ben Chipman, an independent from Portland, and Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell.

LEPAGE ACKNOWLEDGES FUNDS THREAT

Saviello’s request for the committee to launch an investigation by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability comes less than a week after Good Will-Hinckley withdrew an offer to hire Eves as its next president. Eves has since said that the board of directors of Good Will-Hinckley told him that LePage had sent a handwritten note to board chairman Jack Moore in which he threatened to pull state funding unless the school reconsidered its decision to hire Eves, who was supposed to start the $120,000-a-year job Wednesday

Moore confirmed receipt of the note, but declined through a school spokesman to elaborate on its message. He also said he would make the letter public, but that it “may have been discarded.”

Moore also issued a statement in which he denied that Eves’ hiring was political, as LePage and his supporters assert. Moore also said the prospect of losing state and private funding made the decision to break the contract with Eves “black and white.”

LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said Monday that the governor would have no comment on the requests for an investigation.

In comments to reporters at the State House earlier Monday, before Saviello’s request was made public, LePage acknowledged that he threatened to pull $530,000 in annual funding from Good Will-Hinckley because he didn’t believe Eves, who has opposed charter school legislation, was the right fit for the private nonprofit and the charter school it operates, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences.

“Yeah, I did,” he said. “If I could, I would. Absolutely. Why wouldn’t I? Tell me why I wouldn’t take the taxpayer money, to prevent somebody to go into a school and destroy it. Because (Eves’) heart’s not into doing the right thing for Maine people.”

LePage disputed the characterization by some that his actions amounted to blackmail.

“Please go read the definition of ‘blackmail,’ ” he said. “I don’t gain anything out of it and neither does (Eves). So there’s nobody gaining anything. So I think you are misusing the word. And that’s coming from a Frenchman.”

Eves, who appeared Monday on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network show “Maine Calling,” was read the governor’s comments over the air. He reiterated his qualifications for the job, citing his experience with at-risk children as a family therapist. He also responded to the governor’s argument that the school wasn’t blackmailed because neither he nor LePage gained.

“I don’t know if anybody gained anything, but I know that I lost a job,” he said. “I know that I lost a job because the governor got in the way and used the machinery of government and taxpayer dollars to prevent that from happening because I’m a political opponent.”

Sen. Bill Diamond, a Windham Democrat who serves on the Government Oversight Committee, said before Saviello’s request had become public that he believed the issue was ripe for review by the committee and OPEGA. Diamond said not all of the facts are known, but there was at least the appearance of abuse by the governor.

“We would probably put it on the fast track,” Diamond said. “I think it is very serious, at least the appearance of it. I think it needs to be evaluated and we should do it quickly. … What we know about it is very serious and it requires our review.”

One of Diamond’s colleagues on the oversight committee, Republican Sen. David Burns of Whiting, said he did not have an opinion on the governor’s alleged actions because all he knows is what has been in the media. Burns didn’t endorse Saviello’s request for an investigation, but hopes any discussion will yield “fresh” information.

“I don’t mind having the discussion,” Burns said, noting the committee considers numerous requests. “Some we have agreed to and some we haven’t. That’s the good thing about a bicameral committee.”

FOCUS OF POTENTIAL INVESTIGATION

A nonprofit institution, Good Will-Hinckley opened as a farm, school and home for needy boys in 1889. It launched the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield in 2011 – the first of five charter schools that have been approved in Maine – and also runs other educational and social services programs, some of which assist troubled youths.

Had Eves been hired, he would have overseen the entire institution, including the charter school.

Good Will-Hinckley had an enrollment of 36 students this year, and enrollment at the academy was 76 students.

Beth Ashcroft, OPEGA’s executive director, said the Government Oversight Committee, which has six Republicans and six Democrats, could roll the two requests into a single inquiry if it decides to direct OPEGA to move forward with an investigation.

With LePage having acknowledged that he sent a note to the school’s board, an OPEGA investigation would likely focus not on whether certain acts were committed, but on whether those acts violated the limits that the constitution or law impose on the powers of the governor, or whether LePage abused those powers by using his lawful authority over discretionary spending to achieve a private, political end.

If the panel finds that LePage committed an offense, any effort to bring impeachment proceedings would be heard in the House, and a trial on the charges would be held in the Senate.

In his request to the committee, Saviello asked that the investigation determine whether allegations of political use of state resources were justified; review the allocation of funding for Good Will-Hinckley; review the allocation of all discretionary funding available to the LePage administration; and report examples of “improper or potentially inappropriate discretionary use of state resources.”

Evangelos, Chipman and Warren asked the committee to look into the funding allocated and threatened to be withheld; any actions taken by LePage to withhold any intended payments; and all relevant communications among LePage’s office, the Department of Education, Good Will-Hinckley, the Alfond Foundation – a private foundation that has funded the school – and any other relevant entities.

CONCERNS OVER LOSS OF FUNDING

Attorney General Janet Mills declined to comment Monday on whether her office is pursuing an investigation. Last week, Mills said she was “very troubled” by LePage’s actions.

The funding at stake is $530,000 in annual state money that the Fairfield charter school receives for room and board costs. It comes from a pool of education funding within the state’s General Fund and the Department of Education, under a budget line controlled by the governor.

The $1.06 million in question is broken into two years, $530,000 in each fiscal year of the state’s two-year budget. It is referred to as “Center of Excellence for At-Risk Students/Choice and Opportunity Fund.” The total amount is identical to the sum of money referenced by the Alfond Foundation in a June 18 letter to Moore, the Good Will-Hinckley board chairman. The letter expresses concerns over the “likely loss of $1,060,000 in state funding over the next two years” for residential programs at the school.

House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said in a written statement that Democrats support Saviello’s request.

“The people of Maine have a right to know whether their elected officials are misusing their authority or state funds,” he said.