Wednesday April 24, 2013 | 06:34 PM

Maine House Speaker Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, reiterated his skepticism of Gov. Paul LePage's proposed commission to review the state's unemployment compensation system.

The governor announced that he planned to launch the bipartisan commission last week. The move came as LePage and his administration face allegations that the governor pressured unemployment appeals hearing officers during a March 21 lunch meeting at the Blaine House.

The controversy triggered a coalition of unemployment attorneys to call for a federal probe into the allegations. 

Democrats have questioned the timing of LePage's commission, which Eves repeated on Wednesday.

Asked if Democrats were willing to participate in the commission, Eves said, "What we don’t need is a cover-up committee to distract from what happened. The timing is suspicious, I think." 

He added, "We what we do need to do is have an independent review to get to the bottom of what happened at the Blaine House. And, also, if there are things that aren’t working well (within the unemployment system) we should identify that." 

Eves said the commission appeared to be a "distraction from what is a very serious situation." 

Eves' comments were echoed by Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, the assistant Senate leader. 

"He tried to coerce hearing officers, got caught doing it and now he’s trying make people look at something else, not look at the real issue of what he did," Jackson said.

The LePage administration has said that a visit last week by federal auditors was routine. That's disputed by David Webbert, the unemployment lawyer who requested the federal probe. Webbert said an attorney at the Office of the Solicitor within U.S. Department of Labor told him Monday that the federal inquiry was an investigation, not a routine audit.  

Officials at the federal labor department have declined to confirm the investigation, but have acknowledged that auditors had visited the state last week. 

LePage told reporters in Auburn on Tuesday that he didn't pressure or intimidate the hearing officers during the lunch meeting. He also dismissed Webbert's claims. 

“Attorney Webbert, he's pulling the wool over Maine people's eyes,” LePage told the Sun Journal. “I think Webbert made it up."

LePage also dared Webbert to name witnesses.

“If he's got witnesses, bring 'em forward because anonymous letters in my book go in the trash can,” LePage said.

The original allegations published in a Sun Journal report quoted anonymous sources. A subsequent report by the Portland Press Herald named several staff members within the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation that corroborated the allegations. The Press Herald report focused on emails sent by BUC staff before and after the lunch meeting.  

 

 

 

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Steve Mistler covers politics and government for the Portland Press Herald. He spends a lot of time in the hallways of the State House.

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