Sunday, March 9, 2014
Think your job is stressful? Put yourself in the place of the eight unemployment hearing officers summoned to the Blaine House last month:
You get an email from your boss telling you that Gov. Paul LePage would like to dine with you. And by the way, your presence isn't merely requested -- it's required.
Then, over the course of an hour, you listen while the governor and Jennifer Duddy, chairman of the Maine Unemployment Insurance Commission, tell you they're none too happy with the way you've been doing your job.
Their beef? Your rulings are too friendly to employees who have lost their jobs, and not friendly enough to the employers who had good reason to show those deadbeats the door in the first place.
"In the decades I've been doing this work, I've never seen anything like it, from either end of the political spectrum," wrote Wayne Reed, one of the hearing officers, in an email obtained by this newspaper last week through a Freedom of Access Act request.
Reed continues: "For the purposes (of) keeping political pressures/bias out of quasi-judicial process within the Maine Department of Labor, these are dark times."
Indeed. And while LePage tries to make them even darker with his call for a top-to-bottom, "blue ribbon" review of Maine's unemployment compensation system (see: Smokescreen/Political), two questions now loom over this administration like a storm a' brewing:
Exactly what happened at that now-infamous lunch meeting inside the governor's mansion on March 21?
And just as important, when are state and federal investigators going to start showing a little curiosity about what one group of attorneys is already calling a blatant violation of the law?
"Governor LePage (is) intentionally interfering with the neutrality and basic fairness of the appeals system in order to favor employers over workers. Federal law clearly prohibits such interference," wrote David Webbert, president of the 50-plus member Maine Employment Lawyers Association, in a letter last week to the U.S. Department of Labor and the Office of the Inspector General.
Even a month after the lunch took place, on-the-record reports of who said what are hard to come by. The hearing officers, who collect evidence and, much like a judge, rule on disputed unemployment claims, have so far said they're too fearful of retribution to go public.
But like so many pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, the 3-inch stack of emails released last week and not-for-attribution contacts with the media are coming together to form a troubling picture of state government at its worst.
To wit: Unemployment Insurance Commission Chairman Duddy, a LePage political appointee, was asked by LePage at one point in the luncheon to give a brief presentation on Maine's unemployment compensation program.
Duddy, whose commission handles appeals of the hearing officers' rulings, instead lambasted the hearing officers for not conforming with her interpretation of the law -- contained in a lengthy critique and analysis she'd earlier provided to the LePage administration.
Linda Rogers-Tomer, the Maine Department of Labor's chief administrative hearing officer, spoke with Duddy about her remarks the next day.
"I asked why, when the governor asked her to give an overview of the unemployment program, she felt compelled to so publicly criticize DAH (Division of Administrative Hearings) in the presence of the highest elected official in the state rather than what the Governor asked her to speak to," Rogers-Tomer wrote in notes after the 17-minute conversation. "She responded that she did not think it appropriate to give an overview to the hearing officers who have been doing this work for many years."
So Duddy, a political appointee of the guy seated at the head of the lunch table, used her time to throw the hearing officers under the bus.
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.