A ranking state lawmaker on Thursday formally asked a legislative watchdog committee to support an investigation into the Maine Department of Labor’s roll-out of a new unemployment insurance filing system amid publication of a secret state memo claiming the agency rushed the program, ignored people having trouble and destroyed records of complaints.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, formally requested Thursday that the Government Oversight Committee support the launching an investigation into the department and the Office of Information Technology.

The oversight committee meets on Friday, when it may decide whether to a probe should be conducted.

Hours after the investigation was requested formally, the Labor Department broke its silence some 10 days after the Morning Sentinel first reported on the memo and its claims. The department denied charges contained in the internal confidential memo describing how the department rushed to implement the system and destroyed records of claimants’ complaints in a “cover-up.”

Since the new claims system was launched in December 2017, countless Mainers have been unable to file for and access their benefits, and high-ranking officials — including Director John Feeney — in the unemployment bureau have been accused of ignoring complaints and pleas for help.

“The Department follows all appropriate policies and protocols at the state and federal level,” Labor Commissioner John Butera said in the department’s statement Thursday. “The accusations of improper handling of information are baseless and unequivocally false. The personal attacks on Director John Feeney are particularly troubling. Feeney is a man of integrity, having served his country and our Department with distinction. I’m confident that the system is now working as intended and has long term benefits for constituents and the State of Maine, despite some challenges and issues at the early stages of rollout.”

In his letter to the oversight committee, Fecteau states that he and Sen. Shenna Bellows heard from constituents and whistleblowers within the department, who said morale was low because they were not allowed to help claimants. His letter also states that a former employee at the Office of Information Technology noted that an internal audit warned of faults with the system, known as ReEmployME.

“The issues reported by both claimants and whistleblowers raise many questions and concerns about the development and rollout of the unemployment online portal and the efficacy of delivering services to claimants,” Fecteau’s letter says.

This  internal confidential memo written by an unidentified Department of Labor employee contains allegations that department officials were involved in destroying documents from unemployment claimants requesting help.

Limiting claimants to file their work search histories only online violates federal law, he says. “States must comply with the requirements of federal unemployment insurance law as a condition of receiving federal UI administrative grants, thus these issues also place the state at financial risk.”

Fecteau writes in his letter it’s “abundantly clear” there needs to be an independent investigation conducted by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which conducts independent performance audits of state government programs.

“The investigation should consider all the issues raised in this memo, but should consider additional aspects of the consortium’s development, rollout and post-launch, as well as MDOL’s staffing levels within the Unemployment Insurance (UI) system that are not contemplated in this request,” Fecteau writes.

For an expedited investigation to be launched, Fecteau said, two-thirds of the oversight committee would need to support instructing the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to investigate.

In his address to the leaders of the oversight committee, Fecteau said he had held off the official investigation request to give the Labor Department a chance to release a statement.

While the writer of the “confidential” memo has not been identified — the document had no author listed — its most serious allegations were confirmed separately by the Morning Sentinel with two former temporary department employees with firsthand knowledge of the new claims program. Among the serious claims in the memo are that Feeney oversaw a cover-up of system problems, with documented records of complaints ordered to be destroyed and some 1,000 unreturned voicemail messages.

In a Labor Department response sent Thursday to members of the legislative committee that deals with unemployment laws, Butera states Maine was able to “successfully re-engineer” its unemployment filing system, whereas many other states have failed.

He said while the department had prepared for challenges within the system, the department was “inundated (and overwhelmed) at times during the first few weeks. As we discovered/uncovered issues and defects, we addressed them as quickly as possible. However, especially in the first few weeks of roll-out, we could not resolve issues as quickly as we would have liked.”

Butera writes that the U.S. Department of Labor provided support and oversight to Maine throughout the entire process and reported Maine’s level of performance in every area was “excellent” for the last quarter of 2017, which included the roll-out.

In answer to the charge of record destruction, Butera writes that “items in question were telephone messages taken by the technical support line staff, which were reviewed and captured in a more secure manner.”

Butera also disputes a claim legislators and affected Mainers have been making for weeks: that in order to complete a claim fully, a person must file his or her work search history online. Fecteau and Bellows both have said this violates federal law by not providing an alternative method to file work search histories.

However, Butera says this is “misinformation.” He states that about 90 percent to 92 percent of claimants file online through ReEmployME, 3 percent file through a customer service representative, 5 percent file through the automated phone system and less than 2 percent file through paper submitted by the employer. “And our customer service representatives have taken over 4,500 work searches since deployment over the phone,” he writes.

Butera states the department “abides by federal requirements and guidance, and has always offered a telephonic alternative as well as the option of walking in to one of our twelve CareerCenters statewide for assistance.”

Nevertheless, the complaints from Mainers continue.

“An independent investigation is necessitated in scenarios like this one where whistleblowers and agencies present conflicting accounts of the impacts on our neighbors,” Fecteau wrote. “We have learned that 150 claimants were overpaid by the Department and yet another Department employee contacted Senator Bellows reinforcing concerns raised in the attached request.”

The members of the legislative committee have asked Butera to appear before them and answer concerns they have, but it is not clear whether he plans to do so. The department has refused Morning Sentinel requests to interview Butera and Feeney.

The shortcomings of the system and allegations of records destruction have been discussed at length by the committee co-chaired by Fecteau and Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough. On Tuesday the committee had been scheduled to talk about language updates to L.D. 1770, a bill regarding employers payments to the system, but the committee ultimately did not discuss or vote on it. The committee probably will not meet again until Wednesday.

Fecteau said members of the committee wanted to change an amendment that passed earlier, clarifying some requirements for the Labor Department, specifically regarding alternative filing methods for work search history, which has proven to be problematic for older Mainers or those living in rural areas without reliable access to the internet or a computer.

All the while, Mainers are still calling out ReEmployME for its faults.

Tina Christophersen, the director of the Oxford Hills/Nezinscot Adult Education, said the career center in Lewiston was providing unemployment assistance to claimants at the Norway library, sending one person for two days a week. However, that service went away, so Christophersen said their program began sending volunteers to the library to provide the assistance. They send one person for a single two-hour shift, and have been doing so since Nov. 1. She said they have helped 21 people file their claims, and in that time, she said, they have seen virtually every fault alleged against the system.

“We’ve experienced the long waits, the inability to talk to anybody,” she said.

The claimants they help are “the same people we serve” at the adult education program, Christophersen said. They come because they can’t read, don’t have internet access or don’t have a computer.

“To have this dumped on them, it’s very frustrating for them,” she said. “Some come in close to tears.”

Christophersen said they will continue to provide volunteer help for claimants struggling with ReEmployME, but she said it will become more challenging during the summer, when the staffing gets smaller because of a lack of programming.

“It was the right thing to do,” she said of providing the help. “These are the same people we serve. It didn’t feel right.”

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

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Twitter: @colinoellis