AUGUSTA — A gap between what was said and what was heard lies at the heart of the latest chapter of the legislative investigation into Gov. Paul LePage’s intervention into a private school’s decision to hire House Speaker Mark Eves as its president.

In testimony Thursday before the Government Oversight Committee, several high-ranking administration officials said repeatedly that they never explicitly threatened to cut $530,000 in state funding unless the school, Good Will-Hinckley, withdrew its job offer to Eves.

But officials at the Fairfield school and others testified Thursday or have said in previous proceedings that after meetings or conversations with LePage administration officials they believed the funding would be lost if Eves got the job.

Now, the committee must decide what – if anything – to do next in an inquiry that has raised questions about the Republican governor’s use of executive power and spurred calls from some Democrats for his impeachment. The committee will meet Dec. 3 to review Thursday’s testimony and other material before making its next move.

The committee’s investigation has proceeded even though LePage acknowledged on June 30 that he threatened to pull the school’s funding. The governor has emphasized that he questioned Eves’ qualifications and considered him a poor choice for the job because of his opposition to charter schools. Among the programs at Good Will-Hinckley, which provides educational and other programs to at-risk youth, is a state-licensed charter school known as the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences.

What the committee apparently hoped to do Thursday was glean more details about the sequence of events, decisions and communications leading up to the school’s decision to withdraw its job offer to Eves on June 24.

What it got instead was a seven-hour series of sharply contrasting impressions of what was said and what it meant.

Aaron Chadbourne, a senior policy adviser, and Tom Desjardin, the former interim education commissioner, acknowledged that LePage opposed the organization’s decision to hire the Democratic leader. But both testified that they never mentioned the state’s $530,000 in annual funding during their attempts to persuade school officials to rescind their offer to Eves.

“If they got the impression there was a threat, it was communicated quite clearly from people other than those of us who were working on this day-to-day,” Desjardin said, referring to Good Will-Hinckley officials. Desjardin admitted he moved to pull the school’s first-quarter payment in June, but denied that LePage ordered him to do so.

Others who testified included lobbyists from Good Will-Hinckley who were approached by LePage officials after the governor learned that Eves was hired, and the president of the Harold Alfond Foundation, which provides a key grant to Good Will-Hinckley.

Sara Vanderwood, a lobbyist for Good Will-Hinckley, testified that the funding threat was not explicit in a meeting with Chadbourne, but it was clearly intended. She said she was specifically hired by the school to ensure that the funding stayed in the budget.

“There was no direct (statement) ‘the funding was in jeopardy,'” Vanderwood said. “It was the sense that I got.”

A report released Sept. 8 by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the watchdog agency that is directed by the oversight panel, found that the funding threat directly led to the school’s decision to withdraw its job offer to Eves.

Chadbourne is a key figure in the 25-page report, which found that he met with Good Will-Hinckley officials as the LePage administration moved to prevent Eves’ hiring. According to the report, LePage officials said that they could no longer support the school.

“Those on the receiving end of these communications report that they clearly understood the Governor’s ‘support’ to mean the $530,000 in (state) funding for the upcoming biennium and that the Governor’s withdrawal of this support was directly linked to the school’s decision to hire the Speaker,” the report said.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chairman of the oversight committee, pressed Chadbourne on whether he was ever directed to tell Good Will-Hinckley officials that state funds were in jeopardy. Chadbourne repeatedly denied that he made an explicit threat. He also said he did not know during his meetings with Good Will-Hinckley officials that the organization relied on the funding.

“What conclusions they drew from (those meetings) is a question you’d have to ask them,” Chadbourne said.

Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, had difficulty squaring Chadbourne’s response with comments from Good Will-Hinckley officials, including board chairman Jack Moore.

“The message I was intending to send, which I believe was heard by chairman Moore, was that the governor disagreed with their selection and he did not have confidence that (Eves) would be a good manager,” Chadbourne said.

Mastraccio replied, “Mr. Moore clearly took that to mean that you were talking about financial support.”

Chadbourne said, “I can’t speak to what Mr. Moore thought.”

Mastraccio pushed further.

“What was your point then? What did you intend for him to know? What was your business? What are you there for? Why is it your business at all who Good Will-Hinckley hires? What was your hammer?”

Chadbourne replied, “The governor lacked confidence in the selection process and the selection that the board made. That was my unequivocal message.”

Adding that he wasn’t surprised that school officials took that to mean the funding was in jeopardy, Chadbourne said, “I’m not going to dispute any conclusions that (Moore) drew from our conversation.”

Cynthia Montgomery, the governor’s legal counsel, also testified, saying she had limited knowledge of the administration’s effort to prevent funds from flowing to Good Will-Hinckley. She acknowledged that other officials, including Chadbourne, discussed the issue, but she was never consulted by the governor on the matter.

On June 30, LePage told reporters that he moved to pull the school’s funding.

“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.”

Greg Powell, chairman of the Harold Alfond Foundation, recounted a phone call he received from LePage in which the governor said he could not support Good Will-Hinckley under Eves’ leadership. The foundation provides a $2.75 million grant to Good Will-Hinckley.

“What the governor was thinking, I don’t know. … What he said to me is ‘I can’t, in good conscience as governor of this state, continue to support a school where the CEO is an opponent of charter schools, lives a long way away from the town and is not, in his opinion, qualified,'” Powell said.

He stressed that the foundation never decided or threatened to pull its financial support for Good Will-Hinckley. But he interpreted the governor’s call as a sign that he was taking a hard-line on Eves’ hiring and, although LePage never mentioned funding, the risk of losing state dollars was “almost immediately” a concern to Powell.

Pressed by a committee member whether LePage’s “support” equaled “money” in his mind, Powell replied, “That’s what I came to believe.”

Rich Abramson, the school’s former interim president, told the committee that he received a June 5 phone call from the governor in which LePage expressed his disapproval of the board’s decision to hire Eves. He said he explained the hiring process to the governor.

“Everyone was unanimous that Mark was the best candidate to be president,” he said. “That didn’t matter much to the governor.”

Eves has filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the governor retaliated against him for political reasons, resulting in the loss of the job opportunity.

Republicans on the committee tried to delve deeper into Eves’ qualifications during questions for Bill Brown, an Eves aide who also is the chairman of the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, the charter school operated by Good Will-Hinckley. Katz and Democrats on the committee stopped the Republican-led line of questioning, arguing the topic was beyond the scope of the committee’s investigation.

Brown recused himself from any discussion of Eves’ consideration for the job, but participated in discussion of other candidates. Looking back now, Brown said he would have recused himself entirely.

Brown said he did, however, inform Eves about the position at Good Will-Hinckley and advise his boss on which aspects of his professional and political career he believed were most relevant to the job.

The highly anticipated hearing brought the committee to a crossroads. While the panel could refer its findings to the Office of Attorney General, none of its members discussed that option Thursday.

“I’m confident that we’ve concluded our hearings on this matter and we’ll need another session to decide how we’re going to close it out,” Katz said.

Staff Writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.