April 22, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Dark times at Maine Labor Department

(Continued from page 1)

Then there's LePage himself, who at one point was asked by a hearing officer what to do if an employer demanded more time to prepare a case than the federally mandated, 30-day deadline for holding an appeals hearing.

"LePage, who is not a lawyer, said that if allowing additional time for employers meant missing the federal deadline, 'so be it,' " attorney Webbert wrote in his request for an investigation.

LePage also told his captive audience that he had once called in a Maine judge to discuss a specific case.

"The clear message he was intentionally sending the hearing officers is that all judges in Maine are answerable to him and must do his bidding or else," Webbert wrote.

But wait, it gets better. It turns out the judge cited by LePage was none other than Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley -- which, not surprisingly, comes as news to Maine's highest-ranking judicial officer.

"I can tell you, unequivocally, that the Chief Justice never discusses specific cases with anyone outside the court," said Mary Ann Lynch, director of court information, in an email Friday. "She is scrupulous about not discussing cases with anyone. I have witnessed the Chief Justice stopping conversation and leaving a room, when others wish to discuss legal issues before the court."

Meaning LePage must have made it all up. Imagine that.

The governor, of course, would have us believe that this whole lunch thing was simply an open and honest exchange with a group of quasi-judicial officials charged with deciding who gets unemployment benefits and who doesn't.

The problem is that by all accounts, it was much more one-sided than that. Even the ultraconservative Maine Wire, invoking LePage senior economic adviser John Butera, reported thusly: "The meeting was prompted by constituent complaints -- business owners who told the Governor that the unemployment system in Maine was unfairly hurting their bottom lines, said Butera."

Which brings us back to that second question: Where are the government watchdogs charged with making sure Maine's unemployment system remains a fair and impartial process, free of political meddling by the Big Guy?

Webbert's request for a federal investigation has been taken, as they say, under advisement -- although two auditors from the U.S. Department of Labor who came knocking last week will be followed this week by an attorney from the department's Office of the Solicitor.

And the Maine Attorney General's Office? Well, let's just say butterfly season seems to have come early this year.

"We have contacted the (hearing officers') union rep, the union legal counsel and (Webbert), told them what the hearing officers' options are and urged them to have anyone with firsthand knowledge to call us," Attorney General Janet Mills said in an email Friday.

She continued, "We have yet to receive a call, and we have been informed that the hearing officers choose not to speak with us at this time. This Office has never, to my knowledge, commenced an investigation or inquiry based solely on hearsay in the news media, especially if witnesses are unwilling to talk."

That, we can only hope, will soon change -- either by the AG reaching out directly to the hearing officers, or vice-versa.

Otherwise, we'll be left only with the wistful words of Hearing Officer Reed.

Upon learning that his emails were about to be made public as part of the FOAA request, Reed wrote, "Although what I had to say in the (post-luncheon) email about political pressures may be of concern to some, it should at least provide assurance to the public, should it become public, that hearing officers are not caving to political pressures on behalf of any favored constituency. I am, as I believe all our hearing officers are, devoted absolutely to preserving the integrity of the hearing process."

Quick -- someone give that man a medal for bravery.

And a little something for his indigestion.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:


Correction: This column was revised at 1:56 p.m., April 22, 2013, to state that John Butera is Gov. Paul LePage's senior economic adviser.

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