Politics

February 27

Federal review: LePage put fair hearings at risk

A federal official says a Blaine House meeting and other state actions could be viewed as efforts to sway jobless aid rulings. The governor says that has ‘no basis in fact.’

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage endangered the fair-hearings process last year when he summoned unemployment-claims hearing officers to a lunch at the Blaine House to discuss his concerns about inconsistent results in appeals cases, the U.S. Department of Labor said in a review released Thursday.

The federal review showed that the administration’s labor commissioners have intervened in the work of hearing officers by questioning them about decisions they have made in individual cases, which “could be perceived as an attempt to influence the appeals decision-making process in favor of employers.”

The review also says that Maine’s system for handling unemployment appeals doesn’t always meet federal guidelines and should be revised in certain technical areas, related to the handling of evidence and the legal weight given to rulings by the state’s Unemployment Insurance Commission.

The author of the eight-page review, Holly C. O’Brien, regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Labor and Office of the Solicitor General, wrote that while the agency found no statistical evidence that LePage’s meeting with the hearing officers influenced appeals decisions, the effects could surface later.

She said the federal department will closely monitor Maine’s performance and do quarterly case reviews to ensure that all parties are treated fairly.

O’Brien also urged the Maine Attorney General’s Office to work with the LePage administration to fix the technical problems identified in the review.

LePage issued a statement saying he expected the review would find that Maine’s system doesn’t always meet federal guidelines.

“It is also no surprise that the Obama administration’s Department of Labor is speculating my administration somehow tried to influence the hearings process,” he said. “This issue has been politically motivated from the start, starting with Democratic activists in Maine and reaching all the way to the White House. The (Department of Labor) review found no evidence of wrongdoing, but uses conjecture and supposition to come to a conclusion that has no basis in fact. The focus of my administration is to ensure the appeals process is fair and consistent for both Maine employees and employers.”

David Webbert, an employment attorney who last year called for the federal inquiry, said the findings are thorough and “damning.” Webbert said he hopes the governor will learn from the report’s findings.

“The major finding is that the governor and his political appointees were improperly interfering with what’s supposed to be a judicial-like process,” Webbert said. “Being elected governor doesn’t mean that you’re all-powerful and that you get to control every decision. We have this thing called checks and balances.”

APPEALS PROCESS MUST BE ‘INSULATED’

Julie Rabinowitz, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Labor, said concerns raised in the report regarding the handling of evidence had been the subject of numerous complaints about the hearing process. The complaints had prompted several meetings with interested groups and the Attorney General’s Office. However, the complaints continued, prompting the administration to call the meeting at the Blaine House on March 21.

Rabinowitz said the federal review shows that the concerns were justified.

However, the review says the administration erred by trying to resolve those issues with the meeting at the governor’s mansion. O’Brien, the federal labor administrator, recommended that the governor and his political appointees ensure that the appeals process is “insulated from outside pressures that might compromise even the appearance of fairness and impartiality.”

“The administration also must ensure hearing officers are free from actual or perceived intimidation,” O’Brien wrote. “In particular, the administration must make clear no personnel action will be taken against hearing officers over this matter.”

The review was addressed to Maine Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette. In a written statement, Paquette said the findings of inconsistency in the appeals process “confirm that Maine’s appeals system has not been consistent in applying the law.”

(Continued on page 2)

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