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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16 COMMENTS

  1. You’ve misstated the conclusion to my blog post, “Four reasons why LePage’s Labor Department visit could be a big deal.” Actually, the piece, which does not assume wrongdoing, concludes this way:

    “Gov. LePage will surely say he was trying to ensure the law was being executed properly. His case will be stronger if he can establish he was using data showing problems in the agency and if he tried to implement rigorous training and review standards. His case will be weaker if he didn’t do those things but instead simply called for a different mix of decisions.” http://pollways.bangordailynews.com/2013/04/11/national/four-reasons-why-lepages-labor-department-visit-could-be-a-big-deal/.

  2. Who knows where your post was thrusting? It started with anonymous gossip, added to anonymous gossip, and attempted to draw serious conclusions regarding anonymous gossip — all to fit a prejudiced narrative you yourself acknowledge as overly inviting. If you can prove the Governor said the things the anonymous gossipers said he said, then your comments will be relevant, indeed.

  3. It should be obvious that the BDN, LSJ and MMT are starting early on their pre-2014 campaign attacks on LePage. This is joke journalism…laughable and below any legitimate journalistic standard. A joke. Expect a “LePage is a bully” story about every other day for the next 18 months. Exactly why Ive cancelled by BDN subscription after 25 years. Made Up News. Unfortunate but very much expected.

  4. I like that – Joke Journalism. We should add that to our regular talking points as should any true American candidate. e.g. “The BDN reports yada yada yada.” Answer: “Oh, so you rely on Joke Journalism for your information – how interesting. Next question please.”

  5. Can it be any more obvious to illuminate the criminal liberal bias in the Maine media? Particularly in the rolls the Bangor Democrat News, and the Pingree Peoples Herald play in the continuous LePage bashing they practice. It’s clear that the Sun Journal Editorial Staff had no interest in supporting the truth here, even though they had the documents discrediting these dishonest state workers version of events.
    If they are not following established law and guidelines in the conduct of these hearings, then it is correct for them to held accountable. This is obviously the case as the internal review by the Department of Labor came to that conclusion.
    Disgusting, but not unexpected, behaviour on the part of the liberal Maine media, and the dishonest leaders of the MSEA. Also culpable were all the lawyers who couldn’t pass up the chance to engage in some LePage bashing, even though they were completely ignorant of the facts.
    Situation normal with the leftists in this state.

  6. Since all meetings of the Governor affect the People of Maine, I personally think that he should have someone following him with a Video Camera to substantiate the actual vocal blunders being reported about the Govern and the things he says and how he says them, then there would be no mistaking the meaning…

  7. Every question I posed has been asked already, demonstrating that those are real concerns being discussed. Moreover, the idea of a federal investigation is entirely predictable, based both on the history and practices of American politics and government. Since my post was written, it has been reported that a federal investigation would be requested. Given the status of the Unemployment Insurance program and its appeals hearing officers, such a request is, frankly, to be expected.

    Whether an investigation is held and what one might discover is, of course, highly uncertain. But the idea that there might be one? Common sense.

  8. Amy, has there been any indication through your extensive research that the unemployment insurance program will finally deal with the problems that were reported by the mishandled applicants for unemployment insurance such as with the person who is mentioned in this article who has a disability? Are they working on the issues at all ? It would be good if they finally are addressing the reason for the evaluation in the first place! Why prolong it and take care of the applicants who didn’t get their fair hearing..I hope some of them haven’t lost their homes by now!

  9. I don’t know the answer to that and cannot say that I have done extensive research. Rather, I’ve asked some questions and done some political analysis. But it is a very good question!

  10. I find it odd that an internal memo printed before the meeting would be titled “SUNGATE 2013″(somebody, somewhere edited it), I find it even more odd that said memo will not “open”, when the link is clicked on the page?

  11. The more times gossip ricochets around in your corner of cyberspace it’s given more velocity and intent; why now it’s practically a fact, despite considerable testimony to the contrary.

    I agree that you never did ‘extensive research’, perhaps ‘none’ is most accurate.

  12. Amy, your blog definitely asserts that Gov. LePage is guilty of wrongdoing. In fact, not only do you make this assertion, you defend it with very weak evidence. First, right after the Williams quote which in the last paragraph describes Gov. LePage as abusing, harassing and bullying the hearing officers, you write that “no one is surprised that he would do something like that”. It is here that you are implying that Gov. LePage is guilty of the accusations. You then go on to support the claim that Gov. LePage would act that way because of his political ideology. It is desperate to argue this because regardless of a politicians policies such as supporting right to work legislation or putting up an “open for business” sign, he is not engaging in illegal and unethical behavior in doing so. Yet, you use examples of his legal actions to justify why he would act in a corrupt manner.

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