AUGUSTA — The Government Oversight Committee voted 8-2 Friday morning to take up an investigation into the implementation of the Labor Department’s new unemployment system and accusations that claims documents and pleas for help were ordered destroyed by top management.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, co-chairman of the joint Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, on Friday morning described to the Government Oversight Committee what he has heard from constituents and whistleblowers within the department and asked the committee to support launching an investigation into the department and into the Office of Information Technology.

“The bottom line is there are allegations from whistleblowers, former and current employees at DOL and OIT, and there is information coming from the department that conflict. I’m not saying who is right and who is wrong. The bottom line is that we need an investigation,” Fecteau said during the session. “(We need) an independent investigation where we’re able to retrieve emails and communications internally from the department that clarify whether or not the department has done something negligent in launching the system prematurely and destroying voicemails and documentations from claimants who are having issues.”

Fecteau formally requested in a letter Thursday that the oversight committee launch an investigation. In the letter, he stated that he and Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, 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 states.

After the committee voted to instruct the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to investigate the issues, Fecteau said in an interview that he was pleased that the committee saw it fit to investigate the labor department and information technology office.

“At the end of the day, whether the allegations brought forward by current and former employees are true, Mainers who have been experiencing unemployment and are trying to use the system or Mainers who might be using it in the future, I just want to make sure that they’re taken care of and that folks have a government that works for them and not against them,” Fecteau said. “We’ll hopefully have a thorough investigation to get to the bottom of what happened here.”

Since the new claims system was launched in December, countless Mainers have been unable to file for and obtain their benefits. High-ranking officials — including Director John Feeney — in the unemployment bureau have been accused of ignoring and destroying records of complaints by former and current department employees as well as the author of a “confidential” memo.

The memo claimed that Feeney oversaw a cover-up of system problems, with documented records of complaints ordered destroyed and some 1,000 voicemail messages unreturned. While the writer of the “confidential” memo has not been identified — the document listed no author — 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.

Fecteau said during the hearing that he and Bellows had heard from about 13 current and former employees from DOL and two former employees from OIT who raised a laundry list of concerns in addition to the possible destruction of voicemails from claimants that had not been recorded.

He said those people raised concerns about the system rollout, the time of the rollout, staffing shortages because of unfilled positions, inadequate staff to handle call volume and processing, retirements since December because of stress from mandatory overtime and involuntary internal assignments, and instruction from management to ignore phone messages from the public.

According to the employees, there used to be 20 claim representatives in the Augusta office and there are now only four. That number will be reduced to just three by the end of March.

Additionally, Fecteau said, the department was limiting claimants to filing their work search histories online only, which is a violation of federal law.

A representative from the labor department could not be reached for comment on the investigation Friday afternoon. However, the department sent out a memo penned by Commissioner John Butera on Thursday refuting these claims, stating Maine was able to “successfully re-engineer” its unemployment filing system, whereas many other states have failed.

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

He also denied the claim that in order to complete a claim fully, a person must file his or her work search history online.

During the hearing, Fecteau said he was not confident that all of the problems with the system have been solved. Just five days ago, he said, he read a comment on the DOL’s Facebook page from a person who said he was eligible for unemployment benefits and was having trouble filing his claim, and he then noted in a follow-up comment that he had given up. Fecteau said he was worried that there might be many others who were eligible for benefits but gave up because of frustrations with the system.

Several committee members questioned the need to refer the matter to OPEGA. Fecteau argued that the sensitive nature of the matter and the department’s unwillingness to answer his committee’s questions are reasons for an independent investigation.

Fecteau said he and Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, who is the labor committee’s co-chairwoman, sent requests earlier this year to the DOL asking to discuss the matter in a hearing but received a response from the chief executive’s office saying questions could be submitted in writing but no representatives from the department would be sent to a hearing.

He also cited the harm it could do to the careers of any whistleblowers who publicly testified.

“We’re not going to have the opportunity to ask questions of those people in front of our committee without them risking their employment at the DOL and their credibility, potentially, in the workforce,” he said.

He argued that OPEGA would have power that his committee lacks to subpoena records such as internal communications between employees of the DOL.

Rep. Paula Sutton, R-Warren, who along with Rep. Jeffrey Pierce, R-Dresden, voted against the motion, insinuated that the labor committee treats witnesses poorly and that’s why the DOL did not want to send people to answer questions.

“I have seen people being treated brutally in front of the labor committee in the past, and I think it’s probably a reason why sometimes requests are not granted to allow individuals to come before a committee if they have reason to believe that they won’t be treated with the respect they deserve,” she said.

After the committee vote, Fecteau said the labor committee would continue to work on L.D. 1770 to address some of the things they view as flaws in the system, including alternative means of filing claims and cleaning up the system.