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Feds, LePage to Audit Maine Department of Labor Following Hatchetgate

swib-meeting

Contrary to media reports, there is no federal investigation of Governor LePage. Rather, the U.S. Department of Labor will be cooperating with the LePage administration to conduct an audit of Maine’s unemployment insurance system.

AUGUSTA – The acting Secretary of the United States Department of Labor (USDOL) and Maine Gov. Paul R. LePage agreed Wednesday to cooperate on an audit of Maine’s unemployment insurance program.

“I have said repeatedly that the unemployment compensation system must maintain a fair and consistent application of the law throughout the process,” said LePage. “That will benefit both employees as well as employers.”

If the federal government is willing to work with Maine on the scope and purpose of the audit, “I’m all in,” the Governor told Acting USDOL Secretary Seth Harris.

A spokesman from the Governor’s office said LePage’s 15-minute conversation with Harris was cordial, business-like and productive.

“The Governor and the Acting Secretary even shared a few laughs,” LePage’s spokesman said.

The call followed reports in the Maine press and on social media that the U.S. DOL Inspector General was investigating allegations by several anonymous state workers that LePage violated state and federal law at a March 21 meeting in the Blaine House.

However, according to the Governor’s office, there is no investigation and no federal investigators have set foot in Maine.

[RELATED: Disgruntled state workers lie about "bully" LePage to cover discrimination against employers...]

“Acting Secretary Harris told the Governor that he does not consider the audit to be an investigation, and that he would like to proceed in a business-like manner that is neither intrusive nor public,” said a spokesman from the Governor’s office.

The allegations against LePage, which were printed in the Lewiston-based Sun Journal newspaper and reported on by several other outlets, came from federally-funded hearing officers responsible for arbitrating unemployment insurance (UI) hearings for the state Maine. The disgruntled workers quoted in the stories reportedly said they “felt” LePage pressured them to decide more UI hearings in favor of businesses.

Following the media reports, USDOL Regional Administrator Holly C. O’Brien sent an April 12 letter to Maine DOL Commissioner Jeanne Paquette expressing concern of the Sun Journal’s report. O’Brien said in the letter that she has asked two members of her staff to travel to Augusta this week to review a handful of decided cases.

“This will establish a baseline for further review of cases over the coming months to see if there is any appreciable difference detected,” O’Brien said in the letter.

Two days after O’Brien’s letter, David G. Webbert, an Augusta-based attorney and donor to LePage’s potential 2014 Democratic challengers, ratcheted up the scurrilous claims by requesting an “immediate investigation of the recent public disclosures” of LePage’s “unlawful actions.”

In an April 15 letter printed on Johnson & Webbert, LLP letterhead, Webbert asked Gay M. Gilbert, administrator of the federal office of unemployment insurance, and Daniel R. Petrole, deputy inspector general of the USDOL, to investigate LePage’s now-infamous Blaine House meeting with the hearing officers. Maine’s entire U.S. Congressional Delegation was cc’d on the letter.

In the letter, Webbert cited numerous press reports, including Maine Today Media reports in which he was the primary source, and levied various criticisms against the Governor and his administration.

Webbert’s letter, which reads less like a formal legal complaint and more like a partisan blog post, suggests that it is unlawful—even heinous for an Executive to ask state workers to follow the law.

“These reports warrant an immediate and thorough investigation because the reported actions of the Governor and his political appointees clearly violate the fundamental requirements of federal law regarding the payment of unemployment compensation benefits,” wrote Webbert.

Webbert, who represents the Maine affiliate of National Employment Lawyers Association, said in the letter that the Governor’s actions violate federal requirements that employer-funded UI benefits be doled out as quickly as possible via a fair and impartial hearing.

“The clear message he was intentionally sending the hearing officers is that all judges in Maine are answerable to him and must do his bidding or else,” Webbert said in the letter.

As previously reported by The MAINE WIRE, Webbert is a Democratic partisan with overt ties to U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud (D-Maine) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) – two potential Democratic challengers to LePage’s 2014 re-election bid. (Recommended: Hatchetgate: Lawyer behind allegations against LePage has ties to potential 2014 Democratic gubernatorial candidates…)

His letter is yet another example of how state workers, partisan operators and biased media reporters collaborate to exact a hatchet job against conservative political officials. (Recommended: Hatchetgate: The Anatomy of a Hit Piece…)

Concerning the forthcoming partnership between state and federal auditors, LePage said, “It is vital that Mainers have trust in the integrity of our system, and I am glad that Acting Secretary Harris will work with me to address these issues.”

S.E. Robinson
MAINE WIRE Reporter
srobinson@mainepolicy.org

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