AUGUSTA — Federal agents visited the Maine Department of Labor on Tuesday and Wednesday to meet with officials at the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation.
Legislative officials said Wednesday the auditors were examining unemployment files in response to reports that administrative hearing officers were pressured by Gov. Paul LePage to skew appeals cases in favor of employers.
Barbara D'Amore, workforce security chief at the U.S. Department of Labor, met with bureau head Laura Boyett for more than four hours on Tuesday, according to department sign-in logs. John Murphy, from the regional employment and training administration in Boston, was at the department with D'Amore on Wednesday, meeting with Boyett from 8:15 to 10:30 a.m.
A spokesman at the department declined to comment on why the federal agents were at the state agency. D'Amore also declined to comment, referring all calls to a federal spokesman; that spokesman did not respond to the Sun Journal's request for information.
A Sun Journal investigation cited sources in a report last week that LePage had called Department of Labor employees to a mandatory March 21 luncheon at the Blaine House and scolded them for finding too many unemployment benefit appeals cases in favor of workers after receiving complaints from business interests. They were told they were doing their jobs poorly, sources said. Afterward, they said they felt abused, harassed and bullied by the governor.
Senate Democrats briefed media Wednesday to say that Department of Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette told legislative leaders that the federal agents were responding to allegations arising from the March 21 luncheon, but didn't confirm that a formal investigation was under way, Senate Democrats' spokeswoman Ericka Dodge said.
Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said the allegations of pressure by the governor's office were “disturbing.”
David Webbert, president of the Maine Employment Lawyers Association, sent a six-page letter Monday to federal officials at the U.S. Department of Labor, urging an “immediate investigation” of LePage and “other high-level officials for violations of federal laws requiring the impartial and prompt administration of unemployment insurance benefits.”
The U.S. Department of Labor, in confirming receipt of Webbert's complaint, noted that the Office of the Inspector General's Office of Labor Racketeering and Fraud Investigations will review and evaluate the complaint and "make a determination as to the most appropriate course of action."
In explaining why the Maine Employment Lawyers Association felt the need to bring this matter to federal investigators so quickly, Webbert said, “The hearing officers really are unable to defend themselves because they perform a judicial function. ... They’re not supposed to take sides. So this is a terrible situation for them, being dragged through the mud.”
He said he wanted the hearing officers to be able to do their jobs without feeling outside pressure from political influences.
And, he said, "it is not surprising that the United States Department of Labor has begun an immediate investigation, given the unusually strong evidence that Gov. LePage broke federal laws protecting the rights of Maine workers," pointing out that the governor's staff confirmed he called the March 21 meeting "based on complaints from business owners upset over rulings for workers."
LePage intends to sign an executive order to establish a blue ribbon commission to investigate Maine’s unemployment compensation system, according to a news statement issued by his office Wednesday afternoon.
“Politically motivated demands for the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate a lunch meeting I had with hearings officers are based on anonymous allegations in media reports,” LePage said in the statement.
Webbert said that is not true.
"Much of the evidence of the governor’s unlawful interference are oral and written statements by the governor’s top officials, the internal emails and memos released by the governor and the additional emails made public," Webbert said Wednesday. These items are the basis of the labor attorney group's complaint.
LePage, in the news release, defended his actions to meet with hearing officers, and said media reports and the federal complaint are part of an “orchestrated effort ... designed to distract Mainers from the real issue, which is inconsistencies in the unemployment system. But, I remain focused on assuring Mainers that there is fair and consistent application of the law throughout the process. That’s why I am calling for an all-encompassing investigation of the entire system.”
But Webbert said the blue ribbon commission is a move by LePage to "control the investigation of his own wrongdoing by appointing his own investigators. That is not the way justice works in a free society."
LePage's office said the blue ribbon commission would include representatives of both employers and employees.
The goal of the commission would be to ensure Maine’s Unemployment Insurance system provides benefits for workers who are rightly entitled to them, while ensuring businesses are not charged when they let employees go appropriately, LePage said.
Additionally, the commission will review the rules and laws governing the system to ensure they are consistently applied.
“Let’s take an in-depth look at the state’s entire unemployment compensation system to make sure that it is fair and consistent for all Mainers,” LePage said in the statement.
Also on Wednesday, the Legislature's Labor Committee conducted a public hearing on a bill submitted by the Maine Department of Labor on April 2, presented by Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, to amend the laws governing unemployment compensation to ensure conformity with the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Extension Act of 2011.
That bill, which was submitted under a joint rule that allows state departments to submit bills, was drafted and presented before allegations arose that the governor may have unduly pressured unemployment hearing officers to tilt their decisions pro-business.
The bill would, if passed, permit a 15 percent penalty on anyone who fraudulently misrepresents himself or herself for unemployment compensation, and would prohibit an employer from seeking relief of benefit payments if they (or their agent) are found to have failed to provide timely or adequate information to the Department of Labor of an unemployment benefit claim.
"In light of the recent issue of potential bullying, we might have to add language that rectifies the potential problem that is currently going on," Patrick said in presenting the bill.