AUGUSTA — Attorney General Janet Mills is threatening to take legal action to force the LePage administration to release $4.9 million owed to her office for legal services to state agencies.

LePage’s refusal to allow funds, already approved by the Legislature, to flow to the Attorney General’s Office is apparently threatening the office’s ability to help the Department of Health and Human Services in child protection cases.

At a public hearing Monday on a package of bills aimed at strengthening child protection services, lawmakers on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee heard from Kirsten Figueroa, the attorney general’s administrative services chief.

“Any component that ends up in a court, for these children, for the welfare of these kids, is done by the attorney general. Everything that’s done in the court is done by the assistant attorney generals,” Figueroa said of Mills’ office and her staff.

Figueroa said the Attorney General’s Office is running out of money. She said lawmakers must realize the impact of LePage’s inaction as they debate the $21 million investment being proposed in improving the child protection system.

“You are about ready to give $21 million to start a fix while you aren’t paying attention to the fact that the money you gave in this other place is not being allowed to be spent,” Figueroa said.

The threat of legal action is the latest development in the troubled relationship between the Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, and Mills, a Democrat hoping to succeed LePage in the November election. They often have been at odd since Mills was elected to her post by the Legislature, a practice LePage has said he like to see change. Most states elect attorney generals by a statewide popular vote.

LePage has been pushing Mills to change her office’s billing system and submit detailed invoices for services the Attorney General’s Office has provided to state government.

“These invoices would simply reflect the activities your staff attorneys performed on behalf of a given state agency and the time devoted to each activity,” LePage wrote in a May 4letter. “This would remove any confusion regarding the nature of services performed, the time it took an attorney to perform them and the resulting charge.”

LePage has refused to sign off on financial orders that would allow state funds to flow to the Attorney General’s Office.

In a response to LePage, Mills wrote in May that state law does not require her office to provide the itemized billing LePage is asking for, nor does the law grant LePage the authority to withhold funding for her office.

“Your disappointment with our billing format also is not a valid reason for refusing to approve financial orders,” Mills wrote.  

The conflict escalated last week, when another attorney in Mills’ office, Jonathan Bolton, wrote to LePage’s finance commissioner, Alec Porteous, warning that Mills would pursue legal action if the financial orders were not approved.

The governor’s office and the Department of Administration and Financial Services did not respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon.

Bolton, in his letter, reminds Porteous that state agencies are generally required to obtain legal services from the Attorney General’s Office and that state law requires those agencies to pay for those services with dedicated federal funds that are provided to the state for that specific purpose.

“Neither you nor your service center directors have provided any explanation for your failure to pay for our office’s services,” Bolton wrote. “In addition to being improper, the governor’s demand is inexplicable.”

Bolton said the nine state agencies that are provided with legal services from the Attorney General’s Office are in constant communication with the office and receive detailed information on legal work they are doing for those clients.

“If you do not resume payments to this office for services rendered, the Attorney General is prepared to advance these and other arguments in court to secure the funds this office is owed,” he wrote.

Neither Bolton nor Mills indicated whether the funding cutoff has interfered with the attorney general’s ability to provide legal services to the administration.

LePage and Mills have long been at odds, and Mills has refused to assign state attorneys to several federal lawsuits that LePage has asked to join. Under Maine law, the attorney general typically represents the state in legal cases. However, the attorney general can decline to represent the executive branch on issues that he or she argues do not represent the state’s interests. Mills has declined to represent LePage on several issues, but has never declined a request by the governor’s office to hire outside legal counsel.

Mills allowed LePage to hire Patrick Strawbridge as outside counsel. Her office refused to defend LePage’s administration against a recent lawsuit filed by proponents of Medicaid expansion, which voters approved at referendum last November but LePage staunchly opposes. 

Maine’s online database of government spending shows that Maine’s risk management claims fund paid out $92,098 for legal services to Strawbridge’s firm from January through May, The Associated Press reported. 

Strawbridge has represented the governor in several legal issues in the last year, including lawsuits over critics blocked from the governor’s Facebook page, the administration’s steps to close a rural minimum-security prison and the governor’s moves to hold up public campaign funds.

Strawbridge also has represented the governor in a long-running lawsuit in which unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former House Speaker Mark Eves claims LePage sabotaged his private-sector job offer.

In 2017, LePage unsuccessfully sued Mills for refusing to represent his positions in court

“Appropriation and budgeting are powers given exclusively to the legislative branch by the Maine Constitution,” Kennebec County Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy wrote in her decision on the suit. “If the court were to put requirements on the legislatively appropriated budgets of the Office of the Attorney General, the court would essentially be appropriating funds from the Office of the Attorney General and redistributing them to the executive branch.”

Had the Legislature intended to provide LePage’s office with funds to cover those legal costs, Murphy continued, it could have done so.

Maine has paid out nearly $478,000 since 2014 to Consovoy McCarthy Park, the firm where Strawbridge is a partner, and a Portland law firm that have both represented the LePage administration, according to the state’s database last updated in late June. That includes about $216,000 from Maine’s General Fund, and $262,000 from the state’s self-insurance fund.

Portland firm Roach Hewitt Ruprecht Sanchez & Bischoff had represented the state in litigation concerning the governor’s steps to remove young adults from the state’s Medicaid program and to defend a state policy withholding benefits to certain immigrants.

In his letter to Porteous, Bolton writes, “I can only assume that you are acting to carry out Governor LePage’s threat, in a May 4, 2018, letter to cut off payments to this office unless the attorney general submits invoices based on ‘time increments.’ Bolton said state law gives the sole authority for determining reasonable rates for legal services to the attorney general.

“Client agencies have no authority to simply stop paying for the valuable services they have received and continue to receive from this office.”

Messages to LePage’s office and to the Department of Administration and Financial Services seeking a response to Bolton’s letter were not returned Monday.