AUBURN — Gov. Paul LePage brushed off allegations Tuesday that he pressured unemployment claims appeals examiners last month in an effort to skew their decisions in favor of business owners.
LePage, who had just met with students at Fairview Elementary School's Maine French Heritage Language Program, told reporters repeatedly that “nobody” was pressured by him at a March 21 luncheon at the Blaine House.
LePage said Tuesday he'd received “hundreds” of complaints about the unemployment claims process, calling it a “one-sided system.”
Published reports have shown that the U.S. Department of Labor finds Maine's unemployment appeals hearing examiners are rated above the national average for equitable hearings. Having been an employer in Maine, LePage said he was surprised to learn that.
He attacked David Webbert, president of the Maine Employment Lawyers Association, who last week called for an “immediate investigation” into the governor and “other high-level officials for violations of federal laws requiring the impartial and prompt administration of unemployment insurance benefits.”
“Attorney Webbert, he's pulling the wool over Maine people's eyes” LePage said Tuesday, speaking publicly for the first time since the allegations surfaced two weeks ago.
“I think Webbert made it up," LePage said.
A Sun Journal investigation cited sources in an April 11 report that LePage had called hearing officers at the Division of Administrative Hearings at the Maine Department of Labor to a mandatory meeting at the governor's mansion where he scolded them for finding too many unemployment-benefit appeals cases in favor of workers. They were told they were doing their jobs poorly. Afterward, they said they felt abused, harassed and bullied by the governor, according to the newspaper's sources.
LePage said Tuesday that Webbert must be fabricating the allegations because none of the hearing officers has stepped forward and spoken publicly.
“If he's got witnesses, bring 'em forward,” LePage said, “because anonymous letters in my book go in the trash can.”
In a phone call last week with Seth Harris, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, LePage said they spoke only about “fairness and “equity,” not partisan politics.
Harris “said there was no investigation,” only routine auditing, LePage said.
When told of LePage's comments, Webbert told the Sun Journal on Tuesday that emails released last week under the Freedom of Access Act by state officials “provide strong evidence of unlawful interference with their job duties as impartial judges of unemployment cases. I have confirmed directly with the U.S. Department of Labor that it is investigating what happened at the March 21 meeting.”
An email to Webbert from the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General said his complaint had been forwarded within that department to the Office of Labor Racketeering and Fraud Investigations.
LePage said Tuesday his meeting with the examiners was “friendly” and “cordial.”
He said the roughly eight examiners “had agreed they were gonna work with their supervisors, look at the ambiguity in the laws and send it over to our office. We would put a governor's bill upstairs and try to get the ambiguity out of the law."
LePage said he didn't understand how characterization of the luncheon became “negative and nasty.”
He said he “learned a lot from some of the folks that work in unemployment. I understand some of the dilemmas they face when they deal with employer (and) employees. I said, 'Let's work together and find ways to make it easier for you.' That was the whole meeting.”
LePage said Tuesday he had named co-chairmen of a blue ribbon commission charged with reviewing Maine's Unemployment Compensation System.
“The goal of the commission is 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 appropriately let employees go,” according to a news release from the governor's office late Tuesday. “Additionally, the commission will review the rules and laws governing the system to assure Mainers they are consistently applied.”
The commission will include representatives of employers and employees, LePage said.
Co-chairman Daniel Wathen served for two decades on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, half of that time as chief justice. George Jabar, a Waterville lawyer, serves as a commissioner in Kennebec County government.