Politics

April 12, 2013

Lawyers to AG: Investigate LePage for obstruction

Lawyers who represent workers say LePage has been interfering with the federally governed unemployment process, but LePage staffers deny the charges.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Lawyers who represent workers say Gov. Paul LePage has been interfering with the federally governed unemployment process, and have asked the Maine Attorney General to investigate. The LePage administration denies any wrongdoing.

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"Maybe some of them thought they were being called out," he said. "I don't know." 

Butera and Paquette were asked Thursday why the governor participated in the meeting. Butera said the governor is a "hands-on" official who wants to understand the issue. He said the staff held the gathering at the governor's mansion to create a non-threatening atmosphere. 

"(LePage) didn't do anything wrong," Paquette said. "We didn't do anything wrong."

Webbert, the lawyer for the association representing workers, said any political pressure in the unemployment appeal hearing process violates the statute calling for fair hearings.

"It's an obstruction of the administering of justice," he said. "It strikes me as potentially criminal. I would think it would violate the federal government's standard for the hearing process."

Webbert said Thursday evening that he is gathering signatures from the 50 or so attorneys in his organization to submit with a letter to Attorney General Janet Mills, requesting an investigation.

A spokesman for Mills said Thursday evening that Webbert had contacted the office's investigative bureau but had not filed a formal request.

Tim Belcher, legal counsel for the Maine State Employees Association, the union representing state workers, said several hearing officers who attended the meeting at the Blaine House had contacted the union, to which they belong, seeking protection. He said the union had not yet determined how it would proceed, but none of the hearing officers had reported retaliation for "exercising their First Amendment rights" in speaking to the media.

"While we're unfortunately not surprised, it doesn't make this any less outrageous," Belcher said. "We're evaluating this from a number of legal perspectives." 

Belcher said allegations that LePage requested that the hearing officers side with businesses "appears on its face to be unlawful.

"They've been told to skew the results of the decisions in cases that are subject to state and federal law," Belcher said. "So the question is, how do they do their jobs now?

"Hopefully the administration and the department will realize their error and take affirmative steps to distance themselves from what appears to be a very serious overreach," he said.

Democratic legislative leaders said Thursday that the allegations are troubling.  

"If this is true, the governor's actions represent political interference and intimidation," said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. "We are calling on Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette to repudiate these alleged remarks and ensure that the state employees can continue to serve as impartial judges in these hearings."

Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, said the allegations are "appalling."

"We owe unemployed workers a fair shot," said Patrick, co-chairman of the Legislature's Labor Committee. "We don't need someone thinking he's a dictator intimidating unbiased arbitrators of the law. It's appalling this is happening in the U.S. You expect this sort of thing in communist China, but not in Maine."

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

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter:@stevemistler

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