AUGUSTA –– The Legislature’s watchdog agency has begun its inquiry into Gov. Paul LePage’s threat to withhold state funds from a private school for at-risk children unless it withdrew a job offer to Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves.

Beth Ashcroft, director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, told lawmakers on the Government Oversight Committee on Friday that so far individuals and agencies within the scope of the inquiry have cooperated with investigators. Ashcroft also said that her agency hopes to release findings from its investigation in September.

The OPEGA inquiry will not make a determination of wrongdoing. However, the results of the probe could initiate a deeper investigation and lay the groundwork for impeachment proceedings, if warranted.

The oversight committee, which directs OPEGA, voted July 1 to initiate a fact-finding inquiry into LePage’s actions, which critics say were an abuse of his executive power. Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, one of four lawmakers to request the investigation, wrote that allegations that LePage blackmailed the Good Will-Hinckley board of directors “offer a chilling example of a potential overstep of executive authority.”

Saviello, a moderate Republican who has been at odds with the more conservative governor in the past, said he was concerned that the “administration may have used state funding as a tool to target political opponents.”

Good Will-Hinckley operates several educational programs, including a charter school, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, which was scheduled to receive $1.06 million in state funding over the next two years. LePage contacted a school official and threatened to kill the state funding after the school’s board of directors offered the job of president to Eves, who has been a legislative opponent of charter schools.

After LePage issued the threat, the board voted to withdraw the job offer to Eves, citing the board’s responsibility to protect Good Will-Hinckley’s financial health. Eves was paid a financial settlement but has threatened to sue LePage.

It’s not yet known which agencies and state officials OPEGA plans to review during its investigation. However, the probe could include records and procedures at the Department of Education, the source of funding for the school.

Documents and interviews within the OPEGA inquiry are shielded from public review by an exemption in Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. The Government Oversight Committee is also removed from the investigation by a provision in OPEGA’s rules that is designed to prevent political interference. The committee could become involved if OPEGA investigators encounter resistance from the LePage administration.

Cynthia Montgomery, the governor’s legal counsel, has argued that OPEGA had no jurisdiction over the governor’s office. In a letter sent to the agency before the investigation was initiated, Montgomery invoked the constitutional separation of powers.

“If members of the Legislature wish to ‘investigate’ the governor, they should look to the Constitution for the authority to do so,” she wrote.

The Office of Attorney General, which advises OPEGA on legal matters, said that the current investigation is within the agency’s jurisdiction.

Some Democrats have called for impeachment proceedings against LePage, but it’s unclear at this point whether any offenses the governor may have committed would be impeachable. Under the Constitution, the House of Representatives has “sole power of impeachment.” The Senate would act as judge and jury during an impeachment proceeding. Impeachment requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate.

In the past, OPEGA fact-finding investigations have prompted additional actions by the Government Oversight Committee. The 12-member committee, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, has the ability to subpoena witnesses.

In 2011, armed with an OPEGA fact-finding report into the activities of the Maine Turnpike Authority, the committee subpoenaed lobbyists and former MTA director Paul Violette. Violette was later convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison, with all but 3½ years suspended, for using MTA funds to pay for a lavish lifestyle that included five-star hotels and fancy restaurants.

Meanwhile, a civil lawsuit involving Eves and LePage may be imminent. David Webbert, a labor attorney representing Eves, told the Portland Press Herald that the Democratic leader could file his lawsuit against the governor next week.

Webbert has alleged that the governor used the power of his office and the machinery of government to blackmail Good Will-Hinckley to pursue a political vendetta against Eves and prevent him from attaining gainful employment in the private sector.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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