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HATCHETGATE: The Anatomy of a Hit Piece

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On Wednesday the Lewiston Sun Journal, the Bangor Daily News, and Maine Today Media all ran stories based on the anonymous gossip of disgruntled state workers with axes to grind against Republican Gov. Paul R. LePage.

The anonymous Department of Labor (DoL) workers reportedly said LePage “scolded” them and told them to “skew” the outcomes of unemployment insurance (UI) hearings in favor of Maine employers. The Maine State Employees Association (MSEA) and high-ranking Democrats are now criticizing the Governor and calling for the Attorney General to investigate.

[Recommended: Disgruntled state workers lie about Blaine House Bully to cover errors…]

The events provide a good opportunity to examine how the media and the left in general execute a hatchet job on a conservative political official.

IT BEGINS

In early March, the Governor’s Office decided to arrange a meeting with the DoL hearing officers responsible for deciding whether individuals are eligible for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. The meeting was prompted by constituent complaints regarding inconsistencies in the hearing process. A subsequent review of UI hearings by Unemployment Insurance Commission Chair Jennifer J. Duddy found numerous problems.

On March 13, Bureau of Unemployment Compensation (BUC) Director Laura L. Boyett sent a headcount of hearing officers and DoL supervisors who would attend the meeting – 13 in total. On March 15, John Butera, senior economic adviser to LePage, sent a message to DoL Commissioner Jeanne Paquette about the meeting: “Can we have Jen Duddy there? Gov thinks it would be good.” The luncheon took place on March 21 at the Blaine House.

At the meeting, Duddy went through her review of UI hearings. Her memo was a comprehensive, fact-based analysis of how the administration of UI hearings, in some cases, deviated from laws or labor regulations. This was, to be clear, an informal, quite personal performance evaluation. However, it was Duddy – not the Governor – doing the evaluating.

Word of the luncheon reached Bill Nemitz of Maine Today Media; Nemitz submitted an April 2 Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) request for office communications pertaining to the luncheon.

Upon learning that the memo, which paints a rather unflattering picture of how hearing officers are evaluating unemployment claims, would be delivered to the press, the hearing officers who were present at the meeting went to the Sun Journal. They gave their take: LePage bullied them and told them to skew claims hearings in favor of businesses.

On Wednesday, April 10, the Sun Journal’s Christopher Williams was prepared to run the story. Late in the afternoon, he called the Governor’s Office seeking comment. In typical newspaper reporter style, he already had his story written and was seeking a token comment. But he got more than he expected when the Peter Steele, communications director for the Governor, sent him the internal memo as well as emails related to the event. Although these emails were quite relevant to the meeting and would have improved Williams’ story, Sun Journal Editor Rex Rhoades made an editorial decision not to include the documents in the report.

The Hatchet Falls

The story broke the morning of Thursday, April 11, at the Sun Journal and Bangor Daily: State employees say LePage pressured them to deny jobless benefits.

“Some of the agency’s workers said they felt abused, harassed and bullied by LePage’s tone and rhetoric, which they found intimidating and made them afraid they could lose their jobs if they didn’t skew the outcomes of their appeals cases in favor of employers, sources said.”

In addition to relying on anonymous gossip of disgruntled state workers with hurt feelings, the story included a sidebar with comments from random lawyers. The lawyers sang in unison that LePage had committed a most heinous act of political corruption – if, that is, he actually did the things the anonymous and angry state workers said he did. (Related: Hatchetgate: Lawyer behind allegations against LePage has ties to potential 2014 challengers…)

The only non-anonymous, non-random-lawyer source the story quotes is Rabinowitz, the DoL spokeswoman, who was not present at the meeting. A nice indirect quote helps the reader discredit her spin: “Rabinowitz said the meeting was presented as a discussion between the administrative hearing officers and the governor, although the hearing officers described it as more of a lecture than a dialogue.”

At the time of the story’s printing, Sun Journal Editor Rex Rhoades had in his possession the aforementioned memo – a well-researched primary source with markings of the Governor’s pen – but decided against using it to balance out angry hearsay.

The Sun Journal then decided to pile on a companion piece from Managing Editor Judith Meyer, Due process in question. Referring to a “Sun Journal investigation” that speculated on hearsay more than it investigated, Meyer ran the comments of more lawyers – including an attorney from the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group backed by left-of-center think tanks and organized labor.

“’The claimant’s got a right to a fair hearing and if somebody has got his foot on the pedal and trying to cause’ the outcome of the process to change, that’s ‘totally unfair’ to the claimant,’” said the NELP lawyer, according to the Sun Journal. A Portland labor attorney told Meyer that “if LePage were lawyer, ‘he’d probably get disbarred’ for interfering.” The story then trots out a standard Keynesian quote about how UI benefits are good for business because the money gets spent at businesses.

Meyer concludes her story with one of her lawyer sources intoning on the courage of the disgruntled state workers who stepped forward to say LePage was mean to them. The leaking of information to the Sun Journal, according the lawyer Meyer quotes, “’shows that those people have more integrity than anybody who worked at the big Wall Street banks’ who stood by and watched ‘the financial mess that has driven our economy into the gutter.’” (What hatchet job would be complete without a jibe at Wall Street, right?)

The #MEpolitics Twitter stream ignited with speculation as to how news of LePage’s alleged boorish conduct might impact the 2014 campaign. Amy Fried, a University of Maine professor who blogs for the Bangor Daily, chimed in with a Pollways post, Four reasons why LePage’s Labor Department visit could be a big deal. For starters, LePage did not visit the Labor Department, he brought the Labor Department to him. Fried wrote, “Thus there could be an investigation launched by the federal government to determine if there was inappropriate political pressure, as well as advice to overlook federally-set deadlines. That, by itself, is a big deal.”

After the Press Herald and Bangor Daily rolled out their stories, Steve Mistler with Maine Today Media did a remarkable thing: he went to the State House to talk with the Governor’s staff and see what they had to say.

Mistler’s story, in comparison to the Sun Journal’s, is a responsible hatchet job. He at least quotes administration officials who were at the meeting. Nonetheless, he proceeds to support the anti-employee, pro-business narrative by quoting LePage’s hand-written note which appears on page six of the memo and states, in part, “Employees must be made accountable for their actions.”

He then uses lawyers from a workers association and the state workers association to cast a specter of criminality over the Governor: “It’s an obstruction of administering justice… It strikes me as potentially criminal. I would think it would violate the federal government’s standard for the hearing process,” said David Webbert, President of the Maine Employment Lawyers Association; Tim Belcher, lead counsel to the Maine State Employees Association, told Mistler that LePage’s rumored behavior “appears on its face to be unlawful.”

Perhaps the best of Mistler’s quotes came from Sen. John Patrick (D-Rumford), co-chair of the Labor Committee: “We don’t need someone thinking he’s a dictator intimidating unbiased arbitrators of the law. It’s appalling this is happening in the U.S. You expect this sort of thing in communist China, but not in Maine.”

Thus the anonymous gossip of disgruntled state workers becomes the sensationalist head line of every major newspaper in Maine, a highly unlikely AG investigation, and a new round of anti-LePage talking-points for Democrats.

The Hatchet Misses

The wildly inaccurate reports about the March 21 Blaine House meeting all follow the same basic narrative: The Blaine House Bully illegally intimidated state workers into illegally denying jobless benefits for the profit of his private sector pals.

There are numerous problems with this narrative.

From the media reports, it would appear that LePage called together a meeting out of concern that pro-social justice bureaucrats were awarding UI claims to the detriment of businesses. In truth, the meeting was arranged after the Governor received constituent complaints about the process and a subsequent investigation found cause for concern. According to multiple sources present at the meeting, LePage went out of his way to set a positive tone for the luncheon, hosting in his home rather than a more formal state office. This ostensible act of good will is being treated as if it were an invite to the pier from Tony Soprano.

In relating what occurred at the meeting, the media reports present a vision of LePage standing angrily above cowering, defenseless state workers as he berates them for trying to give unemployed Mainers a hand up. However, according to accounts of people who attended the meeting, LePage was acutely aware of the sensitive nature of the meeting and invited Jen Duddy, the author of the memo, because he wanted the message to come from her. Who better to lead a discussion of unemployment insurance hearings than the Chair of the Unemployment Insurance Commission who had recently conducted a review of unemployment insurance hearings? If the hearing officers felt intimidated at the luncheon, it was because of the unflattering facts contained in Duddy’s report.

The memo sheds light on the nature of the luncheon discussion – perhaps better light than anonymous gossip. The entire document represents the kind of problem-solution policy analysis one can imagine a businessman asking for. It proceeds step by step to explain problems with specific examples and provides solutions with reference to relevant policies and statutes. Whereas the media narrative has cast the luncheon as an illegal act designed to encourage illegal behavior, it was in fact an attempt to ensure that laws and regulations are being followed.

The greatest misconception of the popular media accounts is that LePage was in any way pressuring hearing officers to deny claims without warrant, with favoritism to employers. According to the problems pointed out in Duddy’s memo, the review was also critical of employers and of decisions that should not have been made in favor of employers. In the final section of the memo entitled “Other Types of DAH [Division of Administrative Hearings] Errors,” Duddy writes about a disabled worker who was wrongly denied an unemployment insurance claim.

The worker’s claim was initially denied after she failed to submit a record of her work search – a condition of receiving UI benefits. The claimant’s attorney argued that she failed to submit such records because of her disability. “The disability arose 20 years ago when claimant was hit by a car and had to have part of her brain removed, which now makes it hard for her to do certain types of tasks which require concentration and organization skills.” Remarkably, even after receiving more information about this woman’s disability, the hearing officer “again ruled that the claimant had no good cause for failure to turn in her work search logs.”

According to Duddy, the denial of this disabled worker’s UI claim was an “egregious error of law.” But of course, this doesn’t make it into main stream reports because it does not square with the Blaine House Bully narrative.

Perhaps the best part of the entire document is LePage’s hand-written note at the end:

“This is good. Jeanne should proceed with new rules. Law changes should be proposed where appropriate. This was informative. – P”

Does that sound like someone who is interested in breaking the law?

By S.E. Robinson
MAINE WIRE Reporter

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About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson was the editor of The Maine Wire from 2013 through 2014. A native of Dexter, Maine, Robinson is a graduate of Bowdoin College, and is currently a Producer for The Howie Carr Show in Boston.

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