AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage has yet to release money to fill a vacant homicide prosecutor’s position in the Attorney General’s Office despite receiving a request from the Maine Prosecutors Association urging action because of a heavy caseload for the state’s three current homicide prosecutors.

LePage’s failure to approve $418,000 in funding for the prosecutor’s job and other expenditures in the office is the latest clash between the Republican governor and Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat.

Mills’ office submitted five funding requests in mid-November and December. In addition to the prosecutor’s position, Mills sought approval to fill four vacant posts in the Child Protection Unit, replace a disabled digital processor for an autopsy X-ray machine and fund the state’s share of a grant for the Medicaid fraud unit.

LePage, who has withheld legislatively approved funding for Mills’ office before, has postponed at least two meetings this month during which administration officials were expected to review and approve the funding requests. A meeting that was to have been held this week was postponed until Wednesday, according to Tim Feeley, a spokesman for Mills.

“I have no idea why,” Mills said in an interview Wednesday after a briefing at the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “It’s hard to negotiate with someone who won’t tell you what he wants.”

DISPUTES NO SECRET

Peter Steele, the governor’s communications director, said Thursday that he expected the funding requests to be resolved soon. Steele said the governor supported filling the positions, but he wanted to make sure Mills was responsibly managing her office’s budget.

“Their spin has been that the governor doesn’t support these positions, but that’s not the case at all,” Steele said.

The expenditures are all included in the office’s budget and previously approved by the Legislature. The financial orders are necessary because people have transitioned out of the positions, thus requiring the governor to sign off on new hires. Mills’ office has argued that the delay is costing the state more money, particularly in the case of the X-ray processor. Unable to use the old one, the staff has been forced to process X-rays at MaineGeneral hospital in Augusta.

Disputes between Mills and LePage over the past two years are no secret and their political disagreements have morphed into financial warfare.

While the Legislature elects the state’s top law enforcement official and ultimately ratifies the Office of Attorney General budget, the governor must sign off on financial requests for vacant positions, federal grant requests or to replace equipment. Last year, the governor delayed raises for 100 state attorneys that were approved by the Legislature while raising the salaries for his own staff. The previous Legislature tried to strip the governor’s authority to approve financial orders last year, but he vetoed the bill, saying in his veto message that he “was unaware of any issues that may have arisen making this change necessary.”

ANDERSON URGES ACTION

The current dispute caught the attention of Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, a Republican, who emailed LePage’s legal counsel on Dec. 30 to urge LePage to sign the order for a homicide prosecutor. Anderson, writing on behalf of the Maine Prosecutors Association, said that while the average number of homicide cases in a year has remained steady, the number of prosecutors assigned to them has declined as the cases have grown in complexity and length. Three prosecutors, the number at the Office of Attorney General, are not enough, she wrote.

“I and the other District Attorneys recognize the critical need to have this position filled and respectfully request the Governor to sign the FO (financial order),” Anderson wrote. “If you or he have any questions or concerns, please contact me or Lisa Marchese (chief of the AG’s criminal division) or Janet Mills. Or any other District Attorney. We all support this.”

According to statistics provided to the Judiciary Committee by the Office of Attorney General, there were 25 homicides in Maine in 2013, including 12 domestic violence-related cases. LePage grew up in a home ravaged by domestic violence before running away as a teenager and has made the issue a focus during his first and second terms.

Anderson did not respond to a request for comment. However, her email to the LePage administration outlined a number of reasons why the additional homicide prosecutor was necessary, including extensive trial and preparation time.

“These cases often involve witnesses numbered in the dozens, forensic experts, between 5,000-6,000 pages of discovery, multiple videos and audios, and just a whole lot of material not seen in the typical serious felony case,” she wrote. “Many homicide trials require two attorneys to manage the witnesses, exhibits and work load. Two out of three is a lot, and if the third prosecutor is in another court, there is nobody there to respond to a death.”

FIGURES BROKEN DOWN

Currently, she wrote, the state’s three prosecutors have 12 cases because not all cases are completed during the course of a year. The AG used to have five homicide prosecutors. It is budgeted for four, but is down a prosecutor following the departure of William Stokes to become a Superior Court judge. Marchese, a former homicide prosecutor, became chief of the AG criminal division in August.

The financial order for the homicide prosecutor is $73,237. The other financial orders include:

n A full-time Child Protection Division attorney at an annual salary of $49,733.

n A part-time attorney in the Child Protection Division with an annual salary of $23,462.

n An order for $28,000, the state’s share to obtain a federal grant for the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.

n A $31,219 digital processor for an X-ray machine used in performing autopsies.

Mark Belserene, an employee with the Medical Examiner’s Office, wrote in an accompanying memo dated Nov. 20 that the digital lab processor stopped working three weeks earlier. He wrote that failure to approve the request would require the office to transport decedents to MaineGeneral in Augusta for X-rays, thereby creating a process that “delays the autopsy process and increases costs.”

“This situation leaves this office in an emergency situation,” Belserene wrote. “We currently have no X-ray capability and equipment that cannot be repaired. The need for the equipment is still very vital to fulfilling our role to the people of Maine.”

Mills has sought to downplay her rocky relationship with LePage, saying the media sometimes overstates the disagreements and that there are relatively few compared to the number of times the two offices cooperate.

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

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Twitter: @stevemistler