A top Maine Democratic lawmaker said this week that Gov. Paul LePage orchestrated a change last year at the Department of Labor in an effort to wrest greater control over hearing officers who decide appeals of unemployment claims.

The administration proposed last year changing the designation of the job of director at the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation from a civil service position to a political appointment.

The proposal was voted out of the Joint Standing Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development 7-4 against, including two Republicans who sided with committee Democrats.

The proposal was later modified before it was voted out of the Joint Standing Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs on a 7-6 tally in favor. An amendment grandfathered current director, Laura Boyett, in that spot until she steps down. The change to that job description was included in an emergency budget that was enacted on April 24, 2012.

That means Boyett’s successor will be picked by the sitting governor at the time of her departure. She has held that job for the past decade.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said this week there has been a movement within the administration to oust Boyett because she hasn’t exerted her influence over the Office of Administrative Hearings, which she oversees, to be more business-friendly.

Jackson served as the ranking minority member of the Labor Committee last session when the administration’s proposal came before his committee.

A Sun Journal investigation cited sources in a report two weeks ago that LePage had called administrative hearing officers 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. They were told they were doing their jobs poorly, sources said. Afterward, they said they felt abused, harassed and bullied by the governor.

“Just like with these hearing officers now, you don’t want people in those positions subject to the whims of any governor,” Jackson said in an interview with the Sun Journal.

“They haven’t been able to put that type of pressure on Boyett to do what they want,” he said. “That’s the thing that’s great about her. She does the job the way that she feels the federal government tells her it has to be done.”

Jackson said Boyett’s independence has helped keep Maine’s unemployment trust fund one of the “most stable in the country,” unlike many states that had to borrow from the federal government.

Peter Steele, director of communications for LePage, said the administration’s actions last year were simply an effort to achieve consistency within the Maine Department of Labor where all bureau directors — except Boyett — are political appointees and have been since before LePage took office.

According to George Wentworth, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project in New York, last year’s change in the classification to Boyett’s job from classified to unclassified will make Maine the only state in the Northeast with a politically appointed director of unemployment compensation.

Jackson said LePage is trying to influence outcomes at the administrative appeals level from the top.

“He’s barking up the wrong tree on that,” Jackson said. “I guess the only way he’ll be happy is if there’s 100 percent of workers not winning their appeals.”

LePage has denied allegations that he sought to skew claim outcomes. He said he called the March 21 meeting with hearing examiners because he’d been getting “hundreds and hundreds” of complaints from people who’d been through an “unfair” appeals process and were discouraged.

LePage recently created a blue ribbon commission 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. Additionally, the commission will review the rules and laws governing the system to assure Mainers they are consistently applied,” he said this week in a written statement. He named the commission’s co-chairmen on Tuesday.

They are Daniel Wathen, who served for two decades on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, half of that time as chief justice, and George Jabar, a Waterville lawyer who serves as a commissioner in Kennebec County government.

Maine House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat, called the timing of LePage’s announcement “suspicious.” He said, “We need independent review to get to the bottom of what happened at the Blaine House.”

Boyett, who was out of town for the week, could not be reached for comment.

[email protected]

State Politics Editor Scott Thistle contributed to this report

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