AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s watchdog Government Oversight Committee on Wednesday voted unanimously to authorize an investigation into the influence Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s actions had on the decision by a nonprofit charter school to fire House Speaker Mark Eves as its president days after hiring him.

In question is whether LePage threatened to withhold or took actions to withhold public funds for the school because its board hired Eves, a North Berwick Democrat and frequent LePage political rival.

Meanwhile, a top attorney for LePage was resisting efforts to launch an investigation into the governor’s actions, saying the committee had no jurisdiction to question LePage’s executive authority under the state’s constitution.

But Beth Ashcroft, the executive director of the committee’s investigative arm, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, said the scope of the investigation would not focus on LePage’s authority but what happened with state funds that flow through the Department of the Education to the Good Will-Hinckley School in Fairfield.

Ashcroft said OPEGA would not be drawing any conclusion as to whether what LePage did or said was justified or not.

“We’re only going to determine the facts,” she said. She noted OPEGA, which acts independently of the committee once the committee authorizes it to proceed, has clear authority to review the use and misuse of any state funding.


“It’s my opinion that we are well within our jurisdiction as OPEGA and this committee,” she said.

The committee, which is made up of six Republicans and six Democrats, was responding to requests from several lawmakers to look into the issues surrounding LePage and his involvement in having Eves fired from the school, which serves at-risk youth.

Eves has called the move “blackmail” and has threatened civil legal action against LePage, but has remained neutral in the call for an investigation of LePage by the Legislature.

The school, citing a handwritten memo from LePage that articulated the threat to withhold about $530,000 in state funding over the next two years, decided to dismiss Eves days after hiring him, and pay him a severance of $30,000 as required under his contract even though he had yet started the job.

“At some point over the last three or four weeks, I did receive a handwritten letter from the governor,” Good Will-Hinckley Board Chairman Jack Moore said in a statement issued Wednesday. “In the letter, (LePage) voiced the same concerns regarding Mark Eves that were later outlined in his official letter to Good Will-Hinckley’s and MeANS’ Board Chairs. I would be glad to release the letter if it is found, but it may have been discarded.”

The state funding in question pays for housing students that live on campus and attend the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, which was the state’s first public charter school, opening in 2011.


LePage has said he opposed the school’s hiring of Eves because Eves has been an outspoken critic of charter schools.

The discovery that LePage was threatening to withhold funds to the school triggered concerns by donors to the nonprofit charter school, which also has residential programming for its students.

“As legislators, we are all hearing from excited constituents about our governor’s action and his style,” said Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston. “The job of this committee and OPEGA is to find facts and not draw conclusions. It will be up to others to act, if appropriate, on the facts that we find.”

Kruger, the House chairman of the committee, echoed sentiments offered by the Senate chairman, Rogert Katz, R-Augusta.

“I think most people in Maine just want to know what happened in a fair and open way,” Katz said, who referenced Joe Friday, a character in the 1950s television show “Dragnet.” “‘Just the facts, ma’am,'” Katz said.

A group of four lawmakers — including two independents, a Republican and a Democrat — called on the Government Oversight Committee to investigate whether LePage made an improper threat to withhold state funding from the school if it hired Eves as its president.


Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, was one of the lawmakers who asked for a review of LePage’s actions and a broader review of how the discretionary funds at the governor’s disposal have been used in general.

Saviello said Wednesday he was satisfied with the committee voting to limit the scope of its investigation to just the specific funds in question for Good Will-Hinckley.

“I think the way this committee has defined their scope is well within their jurisdiction,” Saviello said. “I was hoping, and I still hope, the governor will at some point find the time to come down and address some of the issues. If he doesn’t, fine. They’ve defined the scope and it’s well within their responsibility to do so.”

Saviello also said he has never drawn any conclusion on where he thinks the investigation should end up. He said he wasn’t calling for an impeachment of LePage or a censure of the governor as punishment, at least not out of the gate.

“I’m interested in just what happened and then those facts will take you to what needs to be done,” Saviello said. 

LePage’s staff attorney, Cynthia Montgomery, argued in a letter to Ashcroft that LePage’s office is not within OPEGA’s jurisdiction.


But the agency has as recently as 2014 investigated and issued findings on departments within LePage’s administration, including one involving a public document-shredding scandal at the Maine Center for Disease Control.

OPEGA’s investigation into the Maine Turnpike Authority in 2011 was also instrumental in uncovering corruption at that agency that resulted in criminal charges and prosecution of authority officials.

Citing the state’s constitution, Montgomery wrote, “the chief executive is a governing authority separate but equal to the Legislature itself.”

LePage has acknowledged his communications with the school, but has also said he was acting in the taxpayers’ interest in trying to protect the school from putting Eves, who LePage claims is unqualified for the job, on the payroll.

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, also weighed in on the matter in a letter to the committee on Wednesday.

“Just as the governor has been accused of acting for political retribution, as opposed to exercising appropriate and reasoned discretion, I believe that a rush on our part to investigate the governor’s action can just as easily be characterized, rightly or wrongly, as politically motivated,” Fredette wrote. “This is especially true for those among us who, without having firsthand knowledge, have already made public their conclusions about the appropriateness of the governor’s actions.”


House Assistant Majority Leader Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said her caucus believes the public is losing faith in state government in general and LePage specifically.

“The demand for an investigation is intensifying,” Gideon said. “We owe it to the people of Maine to do everything we can to restore their trust in our political system.”

Gideon said LePage’s actions put that trust at great risk.

“The bottom line is that this isn’t the government that Mainers want or deserve,” she said. “They want honest elected officials who are not only fighting every day to improve the lives of Maine people, but also protecting our constitution and the rights we hold dear as Mainers and Americans.”

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