April 17, 2013

Documents: Hearing officer felt pressured by LePage

These are 'dark times' for those who prefer keeping political pressure and bias out of quasi-judicial processes, the officer wrote.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

(Continued from page 1)

The LePage administration has acknowledged that businesses have expressed concerns that the appeals decisions skew toward workers, but it has denied allegations that it has pressured hearing officers to rule in favor of businesses. 

The documents partially support the administration's claims.

In one email, Duddy listed a series of cases in which she believed hearing officers didn't allow evidence. She noted a dispute involving a business that claimed a worker quit voluntarily so didn't qualify for benefits. Duddy wrote that the hearing officer didn't allow a witness to testify about hearing the business owner express happiness that the worker had been fired -- meaning unemployment benefits were warranted.

Also in the documents were decisions by the commission that overturned hearing officers' rulings. Those decisions cited errors by the officers.

Hearing officers have discretion to disallow evidence, including testimony that could be deemed hearsay.

The administration says Le-Page wants fair hearings for employees and businesses. But some hearing officers are getting a different message.

Rogers-Tomer apparently sensed that a conflict was coming in an email on March 12 organizing the meeting.

"Saw the email about the meeting ... trouble?" she wrote to Boyett, the bureau's director.

"Potentially, it has been tense, but I'm hoping that this event will turn out to be an opportunity for increased understanding of what we do and the whys behind our work," Boyett responded.

On March 22, Rogers-Tomer wrote of a different experience. She thanked Reed for sending her a decision on an appeal for her review. 

"I wholly agree with your result, but also imagine that the employer may be unhappy enough about it to contact (Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette) or (LePage), so good to know about it ahead of time," Rogers-Tomer wrote.

Not all of the emails show concern among the hearing officers. Reed appeared to feel the most pressure from the administration.

In an email response to the Press Herald's records request, he told his supervisors that his written comments reflect "ongoing concerns about political pressures," but if made public, should prove that "hearing officers are not caving to political pressures on behalf of any favored constituency."

The documents could play a role in a federal inquiry into the controversy.  

On Monday, a coalition of lawyers who represent workers in unemployment benefits cases formally requested a federal investigation. 

A spokeswoman for the administration would not say whether investigators with the Office of the Inspector General in the U.S. Department of Labor had contacted the governor's office or the Maine Department of Labor. 

David Webbert, president of the Maine Employment Lawyers Association, which filed the complaint, said Tuesday that he had received a detailed response from the inspector general acknowledging his request for an inquiry. Webbert said federal investigators will find it "irresistible to pursue the allegations," considering the information that already has been made public.


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




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