Gov. Paul LePage never acted on his threat to withhold money from a charter school when he urged the nonprofit to fire his political rival as its president last year, a lawyer for the state’s chief executive said in federal court Wednesday.

Attorney Patrick Strawbridge argued in U.S. District Court in Portland that LePage was making a legally protected political statement when he successfully convinced the Good Will-Hinckley school to fire House Speaker Mark Eves. He said LePage therefore has immunity from a lawsuit brought against him by Eves and asked Judge George Singal to dismiss the case.

“I don’t think there is any question that the funding in dispute were all future funds,” Strawbridge said told the judge.

Strawbridge made that argument as Eves’ high-profile case against LePage made it into the courtroom for the first time since he filed the lawsuit last July. LePage is seeking to have the case dismissed outright on grounds that he is protected by immunity and his First Amendment free speech rights, before any evidence is presented in the case.

Eves has accused LePage of using taxpayer money and the power of his office to prevent Eves’ hiring as president of Good Will-Hinckley, a nonprofit in Fairfield that operates a charter school partly funded by the state. Eves contends LePage’s actions violated several of Eves’ constitutional rights, including his First Amendment rights of free speech, free association and political affiliation, as well as his 14th Amendment right to due process.

Eves’ attorney, David Webbert, argued that the judge should allow the case to proceed to trial specifically because the Republican governor sought to withhold up to $1 million in state funding from Good Will-Hinckley if it didn’t fire Eves, and that he wasn’t immune because he sought to discriminate against Eves because of his party affiliation.

“Folks that have at-will employment still can’t be fired because of their race or their political affiliation,” Webbert said. He added that Eves’ contract afforded him even more protection, since it stated he could only be fired for cause.

Singal made no immediate ruling on LePage’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit but said he would try to issue an order in the “very near future.”

Neither Eves nor LePage attended Wednesday’s hearing.

Eves claims that Good Will-Hinckley’s board of directors voted June 24 to rescind its offer to hire him as president only after LePage threatened to eliminate $530,000 in state funding for the school.

A newly amended complaint filed on Tuesday by Webbert quotes LePage’s statements to a reporter on June 29, when asked whether he “threatened to withhold money” from Good-Will Hinckley for hiring Eves.

“Yeah, I did! If I could, I would! Absolutely. Why wouldn’t I? Tell me why I wouldn’t take the taxpayer money, to prevent somebody to go into a school and destroy it. Because his heart’s not into doing the right thing for Maine people,” the lawsuit quotes LePage as saying to the reporter.

It also quotes the governor’s statements in a radio interview on July 30, the day Eves initially filed the lawsuit, when LePage answered a question about why he intervened in the school’s hiring of Eves.

“I’ll tell you what my mindset was. This guy is a plant by the unions to destroy charter schools. … I believe that’s what his motive is. … That man had no heart,” the lawsuit quotes LePage as saying. “It is just like one time I stepped in when a domestic violence, when a man was beating his wife. Should I have stepped in? Legally, no. But I did. And I’m not embarrassed about doing it.”

Strawbridge also argued that LePage was acting in his budget-making role when he spoke about cutting funding to Good Will-Hinkley and that his actions in the legislative function allow him immunity protection.

Webbert countered that money for the budget in question had already been forwarded on assumption that the budget would pass. The budget allowed LePage large sway over how to distribute discretionary funds to the school, which moves his actions outside of immunity protections.

After the hearing, Webbert said outside the courthouse that if the governor had simply attacked Eves’ qualifications to hold the job or tried get him fired without the threat of withholding school funding, Eves would not have filed the lawsuit.

“You can’t break the constitution even when you have discretion,” Webbert said. “So you can’t say I won’t give money to organizations that have black leadership or female leadership or Catholic leadership or that have Democrats because I don’t like Democrats. Those are out of bounds in our democracy, and that’s what the courts are there to enforce.”

Strawbridge left the courthouse without commenting to members of the media gathered outside, but he later issued a statement through a spokesman for LePage’s office.

“We were pleased to present our arguments to the Court, and we appreciated its careful attention to the important legal issues at stake,” Strawbridge in the written statement. “We are confident in our position.”

If LePage’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit is unsuccessful, it is unlikely that the case will reach trial before 2017, which could affect his second-term agenda. The governor’s efforts to advance his policies already have been hampered by his estrangement from the Legislature, even though his own party controls the Senate.


Comments are not available on this story.