Webbert is asking the appeal court to void Judge Singal’s ruling in Mark Eves’ case against Governor LePage

Read the entire article here at MPBN.

Mark Eves Appeals, Citing LePage’s “Extreme View of Gubernatorial Power”

The attorney for House Speaker Mark Eves is seeking an injunction against Gov. Paul LePaage, in Eves’ appeal filed Wednesday with the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

The brief is an attempt to force the U.S. District Court to reconsider Eves’ argument that the governor acted illegally when he threatened to withhold over $1 million in state funding to a private nonprofit unless the organization fired Eves as its president.

In May, District Court Judge George Singal dismissed Eves’ case, saying, in essence, that the governor’s actions in the Good Will-Hinckley controversy were protected by the so-called immunity clause. That’s the legal concept that essentially protects elected officials from civil lawsuits.

But David Webbert, Eves’ attorney, now argues that Singal erred when he ruled that judicial courts were not appropriate to resolve political disputes. Webbert, in a 131-page brief, wrote that federal courts have upheld civil rights lawsuits between political opponents.

Webbert is essentially asking the appeal court to void Singal’s ruling and provide the legal framework to consider the case. In doing so, Webbert is focusing on a ruling that would “prevent LePage’s extreme view of gubernatorial power from becoming accepted as the norm in Maine politics.”

A response brief from LePage is expected in about a month. Oral arguments before a three-judge panel could take place this fall.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected. Eves is not dropping his pursuit for monetary damages against LePage.

Speaker Mark Eves’ Attorney David Webbert says Governor Paul LePage lacks immunity to violate constitution

Read the entire article here by The Associated Press in the Maine Sun Journal.

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Democratic Speaker Mark Eves says his appeal of his dismissed lawsuit against Republican Gov. LePage isn’t about money, but about the constitutional rights he claims LePage violated.

His lawyer, David Webbert, this week filed a brief seeking a federal court order that LePage committed such violations and must stop doing so. Additional briefs will be filed before oral arguments are scheduled.

Eves’ lawsuit accused LePage of using blackmail to force Good Will-Hinckley, a Fairfield nonprofit operating a charter school, to rescind his job offer. The lawsuit sought unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

U.S. District Judge George Z. Singal ruled in LePage’s favor, concluding he was entitled to immunity for his actions.

Webbert said governors lack immunity to violate federal constitutional rights, and said he’s “very confident” the appeal will succeed.

“The governor’s action was out of bounds,” said Webbert

Read the entire story and listen to the report here at MPBN News.

A federal judge on Wednesday heard arguments in the lawsuit brought by Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves against Repubilcan Gov. Paul LePage.

Eves sued LePage last year over the governor’s alleged blackmail of the Good Will-Hinckley school, which hired and then fired Eves as its president at the governor’s request. At issue for the judge is whether the lawsuit should be dismissed.

For Eves and his attorney, David Webbert, the case boils down to the governor’s alleged withholding of $1 million in discretionary funding for Good Will-Hinckley, which runs a private school for at-risk youth. Webbert told U.S District Judge George Singal that the record shows that not only did the governor threaten to withhold the money, but he and his education commissioner took steps to pull it back just in case Good Will-Hinckley’s board didn’t go along with his request to get rid of Eves.

Speaking with reporters outside the courthouse, Webbert said the governor’s action was out of bounds.

“I mean you can’t break the constitution even when you have discretion. So you can’t say ‘I won’t give money to organizations that have black leadership or female leadership or Catholic leadership or that have a Democrat because I don’t like Democrats,’” he says. “Those are out of bounds in our democracy and that’s what the courts are there to enforce.”

The governor’s attorney, Patrick Strawbridge, declined to answer reporters’ questions.

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“If the money wasn’t in the budget then he couldn’t threaten it,” he says. “So, he wanted it in the budget. It was in the budget and the fact that they were starting to pay it out proves that, and I think the defendant is just misstating the record.”

Webbert told the judge that LePage’s actions were made in a “hyperpartisan political environment” in which the governor had declared war on the Democrats. He says it’s his theory that Eves was threatened because he was the leader of the Democrats.

Since his dismissal from the school Eves has not found another job and Webbert says he’s concerned that future employers may be reluctant to hire his client because of the political fallout.

Judge Singal did not indicate when he might have a decision on the motion to dismiss.

 

Webbert said, “Folks that have at-will employment still can’t be fired because of their race or their political affiliation.”

Read the entire story here at the Kennebec Journal.

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Eves has accused LePage of using taxpayer money and the power of his office to prevent Eves’ hiring as president of Good Will-Hinckley, a nonprofit in Fairfield that operates a charter school partly funded by the state. Eves contends LePage’s actions violated several of Eves’ constitutional rights, including his First Amendment rights of free speech, free association and political affiliation, as well as his 14th Amendment right to due process.

Eves’ attorney, David Webbert, argued that the judge should allow the case to proceed to trial specifically because the Republican governor sought to withhold up to $1 million in state funding from Good Will-Hinckley if it didn’t fire Eves and that he wasn’t immune because he sought to discriminate against Eves because of his party affiliation.

“Folks that have at-will employment still can’t be fired because of their race or their political affiliation,” Webbert said. He added that Eves’ contract afforded him even more protection, since it stated he could only be fired for cause.

Singal made no immediate ruling on LePage’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit but said he would try to issue an order in the “very near future.”

Eves claims that Good Will-Hinckley’s board of directors voted June 24 to rescind its offer to hire him as president only after LePage threatened to eliminate $530,000 in state funding for the school.

An amended complaint filed on Dec. 18 by Webbert quotes LePage’s statements to a reporter on June 29, when asked whether he “threatened to withhold money” from Good-Will Hinckley for hiring Eves.

“Yeah, I did! If I could, I would! Absolutely. Why wouldn’t I? Tell me why I wouldn’t take the taxpayer money, to prevent somebody to go into a school and destroy it. Because his heart’s not into doing the right thing for Maine people,” the lawsuit quotes LePage as saying to the reporter.

It also quotes the governor’s statements in a radio interview on July 30, the day Eves initially filed the lawsuit, when LePage answered a question about why he intervened in the school’s hiring of Eves.

“I’ll tell you what my mindset was. This guy is a plant by the unions to destroy charter schools. … I believe that’s what his motive is. … That man had no heart,” the lawsuit quotes LePage as saying. “It is just like one time I stepped in when a domestic violence, when a man was beating his wife. Should I have stepped in? Legally, no. But I did. And I’m not embarrassed about doing it.”

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New York Times Reports: Maine Democratic Speaker Accuses GOP Governor of Blackmail

Read the full article at the New York Times here

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Democratic speaker of the state House of Representatives accused Republican Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday of blackmailing a charter school by threatening to withhold state funding from it to get him fired from a job there.

Rep. Mark Eves said LePage told school operator Good Will-Hinckley it had to remove Eves as president or lose $500,000 in state funds, resulting in a loss of an additional $2 million in private funds.

A lawyer for Eves said he’s considering taking legal action against the governor.

“The governor’s actions represent the worst kind of vendetta politics Maine has ever seen,” Eves said in a statement. “If it goes unchecked, no legislator will feel safe in voting his conscience for fear that the governor will go after the legislator’s family and livelihood.”

Eves was expected on July 1 to assume the post of president of Good Will-Hinckley, which operates the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, the state’s first charter school.

But Good Will-Hinckley Chairman Jack Moore said it will seek a new president because it doesn’t want to be involved in a “political controversy that will divert attention away from our core mission of serving children” and potentially jeopardize the future of the school.

A LePage spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Earlier this month, LePage urged school officials not to hire Eves because he frequently opposed public charter schools in the Legislature. The governor is a strong supporter of charter schools and has pushed to expand them across the state.

“On behalf of all who have worked so hard to ensure that every Maine student has access to an education that is best suited to their individual needs, I must question your boards’ decision to appoint a person so adamantly opposed to charter schools as president of the organization that runs one of Maine’s most prominent charter schools,” LePage said in a letter to the boards of the school and its operator.

Republican Sen. Roger Katz a member of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, called the governor’s actions “personal, angry and vindictive.”

“Political battles are one thing. Trying to ruin someone is quite another,” Katz, of Augusta, said in an email.

A lawyer for Eves accused LePage of violating the law by using taxpayer dollars as retaliation. He said Eves had hoped the governor would back down on his threat but their attempts to get him to do so have failed.

“Mark is not looking for getting into a battle with the governor, he wants to focus on the work of the Legislature,” attorney David Webbert said. “But he is now out of a job that he was counting on to support his three children and his family, and at some point you have to take care of your own personal welfare.”

The president of the Maine Community College System stepped down in January after LePage called on him to resign because he didn’t implement initiatives the governor sought. LePage flat-funded the community colleges in his proposed budget, and John Fitzsimmons said the governor “threatened further harm” if he remained in his post.

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This story has been corrected to show Good Will-Hinckley is the name of the school’s operator, not the name of the school.

Webbert speaks out about LePage Unemployment Officer tampering

Union reviewing claims LePage scolded unemployment hearing officers, published in the Kennebec Journal by Steve Mistlersmistler

AUGUSTA- Democratic legislative leaders and the union representing state employees said Thursday that they’re troubled by claims that Gov. Paul LePage pressured unemployment hearing officers to rule in favor of business owners over workers.

Meanwhile, a law organization representing employees is requesting that Attorney General Janet Mills investigate the allegations.

The accusations surfaced in a story first reported by the Sun Journal in Lewiston. The paper, citing several anonymous sources, detailed a March 21 meeting in which LePage summoned more than a dozen employees at the Department of Labor to the Blaine House to discuss the unemployment hearing process.

According to the Sun Journal report, several who attended the luncheon said LePage scolded approximately eight administrative hearing officers and their supervisors for deciding cases in favor of employees.

The hearings determine whether a business has to pay unemployment benefits. The proceedings are conducted within the Bureau of Unemployment by administrative hearing officers, who act as adjudicators in disputes between businesses and employees who have been either laid off or fired.

The officers, many of whom are lawyers, hold federally funded jobs, and the rulings are governed by federal guidelines.

The newspaper did not identify the hearing officers who complained,  because they sought anonymity for fear of losing their jobs or retribution by the LePage administration. The paper said it had contacted more than a dozen sources to confirm the Blaine House meeting.

LEPAGE DISPUTES CLAIMS IN REPORT

Peter Steele, a spokesman for LePage, on Thursday disputed the claims made in the report, saying the allegations were based solely on hearsay from disgruntled employees. Steele said the governor neither threatened nor scolded the hearing examiners.

Steele said the March 21 meeting was designed to update hearing officers on complaints about the arbitration process. He said the governor’s office received numerous complaints from business owners that the results of appeals hearings were skewed toward former employees.

Steele said the governor told the hearing officers that business owners and employees should follow the process. “He told them that he had no tolerance for businesses that don’t follow the process,” Steele said. “He said it goes both ways.”

The administration provided a copy of a memo outlining problems with the hearing process in response to an April 2 Freedom of Access Act request by the Portland Press Herald. According to Steele the memo was provided to LePage on March 12 and was discussed during the luncheon at the Blaine House.

LePage made a series of handwritten notes on the memo, underlining issues that he thought were most important. The governor highlighted one section that noted that the current law does not weigh whether a benefit claimant did something “intentionally or recklessly” to get injured.

“This is critical,” LePage wrote. “Employees have to be made accountable for their actions.” The LePage administration on Thursday said some hearing officers were unhappy that the administration suggested improvements were needed, and they were the ones who talked to the Sun Journal.

POLITICAL PRESSURE WOULD VIOLATE STATUTE

David Webbert, president of the Maine Employment Lawyers Association, an organization that represents employees in disputes heard by the Bureau of Unemployment, said the meeting between LePage and the officers should never have happened. He said any political pressure in the unemployment appeal hearing process violates the statute calling for a fair hearing.

“tt’s troubling on many levels,” Webbert said. “tt erodes people’s confidence in the process and gives the impression that process is rigged.”

He said that LePage may have committed a criminal offense, if the allegations made by the hearing officers are true.

Webbert’s organization planned to make that argument in requesting that the attorney general investigate the allegations. He said the request would be made Thursday.

“It’s an obstruction of the administering of justice,” Webbert said. “It strikes me as potentially criminal. I would think it would violate the federal government’s standard for the hearing process.”

According to state law, obstructing government administration is a Class D crime. However, the allegations against LePage have not yet resulted in a formal complaint.

Tim Belcher, legal counsel for the state employees union, said Thursday that several employees who attended the luncheon had contacted the union seeking protection. He said the union had not yet determined how it would proceed.

Webbert, with the lawyers association, said that telling hearing officers to side with businesses was like telling judges to sway their decisions in court cases. Additionally, he said federal guidelines dictate that unemployment disputes are settled in short order.

“If the federal government is concerned about timely decisions, they’re going to be 100 times more concerned about fair and neutral decisions,” Webbert said.

Webbert acknowledged that businesses often complain about unemployment benefit decisions. However, he said the system was designed to compensate for businesses’ ability to fire people at their discretion.

“It’s supposed to be easy to get unemployment benefits unless you engage in willful misconduct,” Webbert said. “I think the governor is misinterpreting the law. Even if you have just cause to fire somebody, that’s not reason to deny them unemployment.”

Belcher, legal counsel for Maine State Employees Association, and legislative leaders say they are taking the accusations seriously.

Belcher would not say how many employees had contacted the union. So far, he said, no employees have reported retaliation for “exercising their First Amendment rights.”

“While we’re unfortunately not surprised, it doesn’t make this any less outrageous,” Belcher said. “We’re evaluating this from a number of legal perspectives.”

Belcher said that claims that LePage requested that the hearing officers side with businesses “appears on its face to be unlawful.”

“They’ve been told to skew the results of the decisions in cases that are subject to state and federal law,” Belcher said. “So the question is how do they do their jobs now.”

He added, “Hopefully the administration and the department will realize their error and take affirmative steps to distance themselves from what appears to be a very serious overreach.”

LAWMAKERS CHECKING OUT REPORT

Meanwhile, Democratic legislative leaders are evaluating their response.

The Office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability, the Legislature’s investigative arm, has jurisdiction to review all state agencies. Lawmakers have previously directed OPEGA to audit state agencies. Additionally, the Government Oversight Committee that assigns reviews to OPEGA has the power to subpoena state officials.

Jodi Quintero, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Thursday that legislative leaders were conducting due diligence to evaluate the claims made in the newspaper report, which Quintero said raised a number of red flags. Quintero said legislative leaders are weighing their next step.

“If this is true, the Governor’s actions represent political interference and intimidation,” said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. “We are calling on Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette to repudiate these alleged remarks and ensure that the state employees can continue to serve as impartial judges in these hearings.”