Parties clash over unemployment report

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AUGUSTA — Sparks flew Friday as state lawmakers engaged in a brief but rancorous political discussion of a federal report that charged Gov. Paul LePage with interfering in the unemployment compensation appeals process last year.

Debate over the report, delivered by the U.S. Labor Department a day earlier, split along party lines in what otherwise is generally viewed as a nonpartisan group.

The Government Oversight Committee took no formal action Friday but is expected to take up the report again at its March 28 meeting. Members discussed the possibility of inviting officials from both state and federal labor departments as well as hearing officers to appear before the committee.

Some Republican committee members said they felt the report’s findings uncovered inconsistencies in appeals hearing guidelines that need correcting, but they passed over the report’s finding that LePage exerted improper pressure on appeals hearing officers during a Blaine House luncheon in March 2013.

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An April 11, 2013, Sun Journal investigative report cited sources who said LePage had summoned nearly a dozen hearing officers and their supervisors to the mandatory meeting and scolded them for finding too many unemployment-benefit appeals cases in favor of workers. They were told they were doing their jobs poorly, sources said. Afterward, they told the Sun Journal they felt abused, harassed and bullied by the governor.

Acting on a complaint prompted by the Sun Journal’s reporting, the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of the Solicitor launched an investigation into the allegations and released its findings Thursday. 

Republicans sought to table any discussion of the report on Friday, but that motion failed on a 6-6 vote.

Volatile remarks followed an overview of the report presented by Beth Ashcroft, director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which advises the legislative committee. Her office hasn’t been asked to formally review the report.

Federal officials said in the report that LePage and administration officials interfered with unemployment claims appeals and may have intimidated hearing officers into finding more cases in favor of employers.

Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, acknowledged Friday that the governor “probably overstepped his bounds,” but Harvell said LePage’s actions brought to light some problems within the unemployment compensation hearing process than resulted in millions of dollars in overpayment to claimants.

Rep. H. David Cotta, R-China, said LePage should be praised rather than condemned for having inserted himself into the appeals process.

He said LePage “not only has the authority, but he has the responsibility and the obligation if there seems to be some inconsistency within an agency. He is the boss. He is the overseer. So, by recognizing that discrepancy and bringing them together to iron out exactly why and how they handle evidence, I think is commendable.”

Sen. Christopher K. Johnson, D-Lincoln, held a differing view.

“Perhaps we’re not reading the same report,” he said. The federal investigation found no evidence of bias by hearing officers, which was the justification LePage gave for taking to task the hearing officers at the luncheon.

If mistakes were made in interpreting the statutes governing the appeals process, they benefited both employees and employers equally, Johnson said.

Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, who serves as co-chairman of the committee, said the outcome of the committee’s work on the matter “isn’t going to be a judicial settlement of any kind, its going to be a decision on how to maximize government accountability.”

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Kennebec, chastised “people from outside this committee who are suggesting that some action should be taken against the governor,” in an effort to politicize the matter.

Katz was referring to Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson of Allagash who, on Thursday, called for LePage’s impeachment for his role in the labor luncheon.

Committee Senate Chairwoman Emily Cain, D-Orono, agreed, but went on to say that she believed the report warranted further discussion with committee members on “different pages” about what the letter says. “I think it’s going to be an exciting time for us dealing with this very complicated and very important topic,” she said.

After the committee meeting, Kruger released a statement: “Right now, employees and employers are wondering if the system is rigged. As the Government Oversight Committee, it is our job to lay out a plan to restore confidence and public trust in the system.”

LePage has denied allegations that he scolded hearing officers and said he was only urging officers “to follow the letter of the law.”

cwilliams@sunjournal.com

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