Our View: No place for politics in appeals process

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Last April, when allegations that Gov. Paul LePage had injected himself into Maine’s unemployment compensation appeal process surfaced, LePage’s office called the allegations politically motivated attacks meant to distract the public from more important issues.

It was, as we said at the time, a predictable shift-the-blame response from his spokespeople.

Thursday, after the U.S. Department of Labor released a letter confirming the allegations of interference published in the Sun Journal, LePage issued a statement blasting the “Obama Administration’s Department of Labor” for “speculating my administration somehow tried to influence the hearings process” and condemning Democratic activists in Maine and “all the way to the White House” for the political attacks.

LePage campaigned for office on the promise of job creation and improving the business climate in Maine.

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The USDOL found he leaned on unemployment compensation hearings officers to decide more cases in favor of employers than employees, personally exerting the influence of his office.

His action to pressure these employees was politically motivated and his responses have deflected responsibility by accusing others of political attacks.

The thing is, politics aside, the situation here is not about ideology. It is about the very real and essential process of deciding the veracity of unemployment compensation appeals required by federal and state law.

It’s a process involving real dollars and real people.

And, it absolutely must be fair and impartial.

When the governor summoned certain — but not all — hearing officers to a March 21, 2013 luncheon at the Blaine House to fix what he perceived to be too many cases decided in favor of employers instead of employees, he substituted politics for policy.

Fortunately, as bullied and harassed as some of these hearing officers reportedly felt, there is no evidence that they bowed to LePage’s pressure. The USDOL found some evidence that the process slowed down as these officers worked under pressure, which tested the law’s requirement that cases are heard and decided promptly, but the federal review did not find a single case of bias.

The hearings officers held to policy, courageously rejecting the politics.

According to the federal review, when pressure is exerted on hearing officers to rule in favor of one side or the other, whether the pressure is real or perceived, “the persons or entities exerting that pressure are interfering with the decision about an individual’s rights” under the law.

The entire point of the appeals process is for hearing officers to make decisions impartially, in conformance with strict and detailed federal guidelines.

The finding that LePage interfered in this process was so troubling to the USDOL that in the letter to Maine DOL Commissioner Jeanne Paquette detailing its review, Regional Administrator Holly O’Brien noted that her office intends to increase its scrutiny of Maine’s work product and performance of its hearing officers because “our goal will be to ensure a level playing field for all parties.”

A guarantee of equity must be the primary goal, and Gov. LePage and all others must respect that guarantee.

The silver lining here, and there really is one, is that the shared findings of LePage’s Blue Ribbon Commission and the USDOL of inconsistencies in the unemployment hearing process might not have been revealed but for the review of allegations of political interference.

There are five specific USDOL recommendations to correct these inconsistencies, including a consideration to allow hearsay testimony into evidence and creating a precedent manual of court decisions for reference on interpretation of federal and state law to assist hearing officers in making decisions. Some of the work to address four of the recommendations has already begun.

The fifth recommendation, that the governor and his political appointees “ensure the unemployment compensation appeals process is insulated from outside pressures that might compromise even the appearance of fairness and impartiality,” may be the most important one. It may also be the least likely to get addressed given the governor’s repeated denials that he interfered.

He did. And, his administration has been warned by USDOL that no personnel action should be taken against hearing officers who may have spoken up about this matter.

The role of hearing officers — and independence from the governor — must be reinforced before unemployed workers and business owners can have complete faith in the fairness of the appeals process.

It’s a matter of integrity. Not politics.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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