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Republicans call for investigation of partisan activity of Legislature’s nonpartisan staff

Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville

Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville

AUGUSTA – A Sangerville Republican has asked the Democratic chairs of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee to begin a State House-wide investigation of the partisan activities of nonpartisan staff.

“It is necessary for the integrity of our Legislature and the trust between parties and between elected members and staff to investigate the extent to which nonpartisan staff has engaged in partisan activity,” said Rep. Paul Davis (R-Sangerville), in a letter to GOC co-chairs Sens. Emily Cain (D-Penobscot) and Rep. Chuck Kruger (D-Thomaston).

“This kind of activity shakes the public’s confidence in our ability to maintain a wall of separation between politics and policymaking in key areas of state government,” he said.

Davis’ call for an investigation follows The Maine Wire’s exclusive investigation into the partisan activism of Jane Orbeton, the committee analyst on the Legislature’s Health and Human Service (HHS) Committee.

Orbeton, like other analysts working the in Office of Policy and Legal Analysis (OPLA), is required to work in a nonpartisan manner. However, The Maine Wire’s investigation uncovered evidence that Orbeton wrote pro-Medicaid expansion talking points for Sen. Margaret Craven (D-Androscoggin), co-chair of the HHS Committee. In another instance, Orbeton asked an employee of the progressive Maine Equal Justice Partners (MJEP) to erase an email. It is a Class D crime under Maine law to destroy a public record.

[RELATED: “Non-partisan” State House staff wrote Medicaid expansion talking points for Democrats…]
[RELATED: Advocate or Analyst: Emails raise questions about non-partisan staffer’s role on HHS Committee…]

State House sources say OPLA Director Marion Hylan Barr has removed  Orbeton has from all matters pertaining to Medicaid expansion, though it is unclear whether she will face further disciplinary action.

The exposing of Orbeton as a partisan activist has led Davis to request a formal investigation of all nonpartisan OPLA staff, and Republican leaders are supporting the endeavor.

House and Senate Republican leadership welcomed Davis’s and encouraged the Cain and Kruger to follow through with it.

“The work of our nonpartisan legislative staff must be conducted with the full trust and confidence of each and every legislator, regardless of party affiliation,” said House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport).

“This is a serious matter that underscores why we need a Government Oversight Committee,” said Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau (R-Waldo).  “From the media accounts I have seen, this is at the very least a breach of the public’s trust in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan office. I find these e-mails offensive and I call on [GOC] to conduct a full investigation.”

Should Cain and Kruger grant Davis’ request, the  Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) would conduct an investigation into written communications between nonpartisan legislative staff, lawmakers, outside organizations, and others.

The investigation could have major implications for the present debate over a proposal to expand Medicaid eligibility, as many have questioned whether partisan factors have influenced OPLA staffers responsible for crafting nonpartisan estimates of the bill’s cost.

Steve Robinson
Editor, Maine Wire