Gov. Paul LePage is intensifying his bid to remove a Republican lawmaker from a committee overseeing an investigation into the governor’s threat to withhold state funds from a private charter school that hired a political rival, Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves.

Last week, LePage sent a letter to Republican legislative leaders reiterating his call for Sen. Roger Katz, the Republican co-chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, to recuse himself from proceedings involving a probe into the withdrawal of funds from Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield. LePage, who sent a separate letter to Katz, copied Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett and members of the party’s state committee. The inclusion of Bennett and the committee indicates that the governor is seeking reinforcements in a controversy that has reverberated throughout the State House.

The party’s state committee is considered by some Republicans to be stacked with LePage loyalists. Republican legislators have said that committee members pressure lawmakers who disagree with the governor’s policies, or speak out against his long history of controversial statements.

In his letter Thursday to Republican leaders, LePage wrote that Katz has ulterior motives in advancing an investigation that on Oct. 15 led the Government Oversight Committee to vote to subpoena two of the governor’s high ranking staffers.

“Republicans are standing by while Senator Katz is leading an investigation that will uncover absolutely nothing, simply for his political expedience,” LePage wrote. “The Senator is vilifying me and using his soapbox at (the oversight committee) to position himself to run for higher office.”

To Katz, the governor attached news clips in which the Augusta senator had made critical statements, and wrote, “You have been making deleterious statements about me in the media for five years, as demonstrated in the news articles attached to this letter. After making such prejudicial statements, it is evident that your personal opinion is severely biased and completely lacking in objectivity.”

He added, “As an attorney at law and a person who considers himself to be of high character and integrity, I would expect you would have the honor and decency to recuse yourself in any issue involving a person you have publicly denigrated for five years.”

Katz, responding in a letter to the governor Friday, wrote, “Governor, I am concerned that you may mistake honest policy disagreement with personal animosity. For most of the last five years, I have supported most of your policy initiatives. When our views have differed, however, I have not been afraid to speak out.”

He added, “I have always tried to do so in a measured way, without injecting personality differences or personal attacks. For me, vigorous but respectful debate is the essence of good democracy and usually leads to the best public policies. I believe most Maine people share that view.”

LePage has acknowledged threatening to withhold $530,000 in funding to Good Will-Hinckley, which operates a charter school, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences. The governor, a strong supporter of charter schools, said Eves was not suited for the position of school president because he has a history of opposing charter schools in the Legislature.

The Government Oversight Committee launched an investigation into LePage’s actions at the request of lawmakers who were concerned that the governor had overstepped his legal authority.

Katz, a co-chairman of the oversight panel, was one of two Republicans who voted Oct. 15 to subpoena Aaron Chadbourne, a senior LePage policy adviser, and Cynthia Montgomery, the governor’s legal counsel. Prior to that vote, LePage released a press statement calling the Good Will-Hinckley probe a “witch hunt” and calling for Katz’s recusal. Katz, who was immediately defended by Senate President Michael Thibodeau and Majority Leader Garrett Mason, said, “As Senate chair I plan to run the hearing in a fair and impartial way, as I always do. With all due respect to the governor, he doesn’t get to choose the makeup of a legislative committee.”

LePage’s repeated attacks on Katz for alleged bias appears to be an attempt to isolate the Republican legislator and perhaps turn the party apparatus against him. The 12-member oversight committee is evenly divided with six Republicans and six Democrats. Many of the Democrats have made critical statements about the governor.

Katz, in his letter to the governor, said the oversight committee is not “judge or jury” in Good Will-Hinckley affair.

“As Bill Belichick is fond of saying, ‘just do your job,’ he wrote. “In this case, ‘our job’ is to do our collective best to get all the facts out before the public so that anyone, including Committee members, may draw his or her own conclusions from those facts.”

Katz added, “I will not be recusing myself as you suggested, because I see no conflict of interest. I was appointed as Senate chair and will continue to ‘do my job.'”

Thibodeau, the Senate president, said the oversight committee is a bipartisan committee by design, with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.

“For Senator Katz to recuse himself would throw off that balance, giving the Democrats a majority vote on the committee,” Thibodeau said. “I continue to have full confidence in Senator Katz’s integrity and in his ability to conduct fair and impartial hearings. Furthermore, I see no value in focusing on previous issues that Senator Katz has expressed concern about that are unrelated to the current matter before OPEGA.”

Bennett could not be reached for comment.

 


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