April 18, 2013

Feds look into charge targeting LePage

Auditors view unemployment files in response to complaints of undue pressure by the governor.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

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Maine Gov. Paul LePage

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This highlighted image of the visitor's log Wednesday showed that two staff members from the U.S. Department of Labor had met with Laura Boyett, director of the state Bureau of Unemployment Compensation, for more than four hours on Tuesday. The same two federal employees met with Boyett on Wednesday morning.

Photo by Steve Mistler

Related headlines

Related Documents

PDF: Letter from attorney David Webbert to U.S. Department of Labor

The administration said it has been contacted by businesses that have expressed concerns about the appeals process, but it denies allegations that hearing officers were pressured to favor businesses.

Hearing officers are lawyers and are granted broad discretion in deciding cases. Documents obtained through the Press Herald's FOAA request indicate that the administration is focused on the officers' decisions about what evidence to accept in hearings.

LePage did not detail that concern when he announced he would be naming a special commission to review the unemployment system Wednesday. "But I remain focused on assuring Mainers that there is fair and consistent application of the law throughout the process," he said. "That's why I am calling for an all-encompassing investigation of the entire system."

Webbert, the unemployment lawyer who requested the federal probe, characterized the governor's announcement as the administration's attempt to control the controversy.

"They know that only an investigation they control will come out finding that what they've done is OK," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, and assistant Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, confirmed that a federal audit was under way in response to a reporter's question at the party's regular media briefing Wednesday.

Ericka Dodge, a spokeswoman for Senate Democrats, said Maine Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette had told legislative leaders that "the incident prompted the federal officials to come up here," but they aren't necessarily investigating allegations yet. She said the federal officials are auditors examining unemployment files.

Goodall praised the federal response.

"We want fair hearings. The pressure that is inherently put on them by the governor's actions, as alleged, is really disturbing and we know today that people are investigating that," he said. "That's important. We need to find out what happened."

Jackson said the governor and Jennifer Duddy, LePage's one appointee to the Unemployment Compensation Commission, should be worried. In the records obtained by the Press Herald, Duddy is mentioned repeatedly by the hearing officers for her comments during the lunch meeting.

Webbert had indicated last week that he was also going to request an investigation by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills. However, Webbert said Wednesday that he'd opted for a federal inquiry because the program is audited by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The Maine Attorney General's Office is aware of the hearing officers' allegations and is reviewing them, said Timothy Feeley, special assistant to Mills.

Feeley said Mills' office was available to anyone who participated in the lunch meeting with LePage. So far, however, nobody has come forward, he said.

Jackson indicated during the media briefing that he'd like Mills to get involved.

"The AG is the only one that can get those hearing officers to speak on the record and protect those hearing officers," Jackson said. "I am absolutely looking at asking the AG to do that eventually if it doesn't come to pass."

– State House Bureau reporter Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.

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

smistler@pressherald.com

On Twitter: @stevemistler

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