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.”