AUGUSTA — House Speaker Mark Eves said Thursday that the board of directors of the Good Will-Hinckley school told him last week that Gov. Paul LePage had threatened to yank the school’s state funding unless it reconsidered its decision to hire the speaker as its next president.

Eves’ account came a day after the Fairfield charter school publicly rescinded its job offer to Eves to “avoid political controversy.” The school’s move, and LePage’s role in prompting it, rocked the state Capitol on Thursday, spurring calls for impeachment proceedings against the governor by some Democrats, condemnation from members of his own Republican Party and a warning from Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills that she was “very troubled” by the legal implications of what LePage had done.

In addition, Eves’ attorney said he might sue the governor, who faces questions about whether he improperly used his power to punish a political foe by interfering in his private life.

The school said through a spokesman Thursday that it was launching a new search for a president, a job that would have paid Eves $120,000 a year had he begun work as planned next Wednesday.

Eves said in a State House interview that he met with Good Will-Hinckley’s board of directors last Friday to address speculation that LePage would exact financial retribution for the school’s decision to hire him. Eves said the board told him that LePage had communicated this threat, and to reconsider whether he still wanted the job.

“I asked a very explicit question, which was, ‘Is the governor threatening the half-million dollars for the residential program because I am the new president?’ ” Eves said. “It was reported ‘yes.’ I asked a follow-up question, ‘If I’m not the new president will that money be there from the governor?’ The answer was ‘yes.’ ”


In announcing its decision not to hire Eves, the school said Wednesday that the board had voted to “seek a new direction” to “avoid political controversy.” However, Eves said LePage blackmailed Good Will-Hinckley in a “political vendetta” that, if carried out, would threaten the financial viability of the school for at-risk youth.

“I don’t know what else to call it,” Eves said. “It certainly feels like blackmail to me.”

Eves is considering a civil suit that would claim LePage violated Eves’ First Amendment right to free speech. Eves hired attorney David Webbert, an employment law specialist, last week.

Peter Steele, a spokesman for LePage, declined to comment on Eves’ statements Thursday, citing the prospect of litigation.


LePage had singled out Eves’ votes against charter school funding in a sharply critical June 8 letter to the school’s board of directors. In that letter, the governor attacked Eves’ qualifications while asserting that the Democratic leader had “no real skills or true leadership.”


The administration reiterated its criticism of Eves in a statement released Thursday.

LePage noted in the statement that annual funding of $530,000 for the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences charter school is an investment to ensure the school’s success. “To provide half-a-million dollars in taxpayer funding to a charter school that would be headed by Maine’s most vehement anti-charter-school politician is not only the height of hypocrisy, it is absolutely unacceptable,” LePage said.

Eves and Webbert said that in addition to the June 8 letter raising concerns about Eve’s opposition to charter schools, the governor sent another letter to Jack Moore, the board of directors chairman. In that letter, Eves and Webbert said, LePage threatened to pull state funding unless the school reconsidered its decision to hire Eves.

Webbert said the second letter, a handwritten note, was confirmed by Cynthia Montgomery, the governor’s chief legal counsel. Webbert said that he had talked with Montgomery in the hopes of resolving the dispute over Eves’ hiring without resorting to legal action.

Moore did not respond to multiple calls for comment Thursday. He issued a statement Thursday afternoon acknowledging that he received a handwritten letter from LePage “at some point over the last three or four weeks.” He said the letter was similar to the one LePage sent to the board June 8, when he opposed Eves’ hiring.

“I would be glad to release the letter if it is found, but it may have been discarded,” Moore said.


Moore’s statement did not indicate whether the governor’s letter specifically included a threat to withhold state funding. Tom Janenda, a spokesman for the school, said Moore would not comment further on the letter’s contents.

The letter may ultimately prove key in any legal proceeding. The Portland Press Herald has requested the document through a Freedom of Access Act request. The letter is subject to the state’s public records law, but it’s unclear whether the governor has retained a copy.

Steele, the governor’s spokesman, would neither confirm nor deny the letter’s existence Thursday.


Lawmakers reacted sharply to the controversy Thursday, with a group of Democrats and one independent, Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos of Friendship, saying that they were looking into whether LePage should be disciplined or impeached.

Among Republicans, Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport said he was shocked and saddened by the incident, pointing out that legislators have families to support.


Mills, the attorney general, would not say Thursday whether her office will initiate an investigation into the school’s decision and LePage’s involvement.

The attorney general could become involved if evidence exists that LePage abused his power as chief executive.

The funding at stake is $530,000 in annual state money that the Fairfield charter school receives for room and board costs. It comes from a pool of education funding within the state’s General Fund and the Department of Education, under a budget line controlled by the governor.

The $1.06 million in question is broken into two years, $530,000 in each fiscal year of the state’s two-year budget. It is referred to as “Center of Excellence for At-Risk Students/Choice and Opportunity Fund.” The total amount is identical to the sum of money referenced by the Harold Alfond Foundation – a major donor to Good Will-Hinckley – in a June 18 letter to Moore. The letter expresses concerns over the “likely loss of $1,060,000 in state funding over the next two years” for residential programs at the school.

“First, we want to express the serious concern of the Harold Alfond Foundation regarding the future financial viability of (Good Will-Hinckley), given the likely state funding loss,” reads the letter from the foundation’s Gregory Powell. He goes on to say that the foundation was reviewing the school’s “budget and financial forecasts,” noting that half of the $5.5 million in potential grants from the foundation were contingent on the school achieving enrollment and other performance goals.

On Thursday, Eves said that Moore told him the loss of the state money and grants from the Harold Alfond Foundation would close the school.

Good Will-Hinckley operates the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield, the first of five charter schools approved in Maine since 2011, along with other educational and social services programs.

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: