AUGUSTA – The top Republican senator on the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee says Democrats’ complaints about the executive director of the Workers’ Compensation Board are part of an “orchestrated” campaign of character assassination aimed at the LePage administration.
Appointed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage in 2011, Paul Sighinolfi’s leadership on the board has led to the largest decrease in workers’ comp rates since 1998, saving Maine employers more than $15.2 million. But the director is now taking criticism from Democratic lawmakers over a staffing decision he made more than two years ago.
The present kerfuffle has its roots in Sighinolfi’s decision, in November of 2011, to replace a hearing officer assigned to NewPage paper mill in Rumford. At the time, NewPage’s owners had complained to Sighinolfi about certain actions taken by the board. He responded by replacing the hearing officer, Glen Goodnough, with a system that rotated three different hearing officers.
More than two years later, Sen. John L. Patrick (D-Rumford), chair of the LCRED Committee, is leading the crusade.
Patrick called for Sighinolfi’s resignation prior to Wednesday’s hearing. And during the hearing, he and other Democrats grilled Sighinolfi and expressed concern about the perception his decision created.
“Mr. Sighinolfi’s unilateral decision has blemished a system meant to be fair and impartial,” Patrick, himself an employee of the NewPage mill and a union member, said in a prepared statement. “This special treatment for management allowed them to pick their own judge,” he said.
But Sen. Andre Cushing (R-Penobscot), the ranking Republican on the committee, says the hearing has little to do with the propriety of Sighinolfi’s actions. According to Cushing, Patrick and other LCRED Democrats are merely playing their part in a campaign strategy aimed at discrediting LePage administration appointees.
“It’s all about their strategy to discredit the governor by attacking the people he appointed,” said Cushing. “I think it’s an orchestrated strategy. It’s not about getting facts. It’s about creating a sensation.”
Cushing criticized Patrick for the way he ran the committee hearing and for demanding Sighinolfi’s resignation before the hearing had even been held.
“Usually, when you present something to the committee, you have somebody else chair the meeting so there is no sense of impropriety,” said Cushing.
That was not the case Wednesday, as Patrick used his position as chair to lead a more than three-hour long inquisition.
Cushing said he sees the latest efforts to discredit Sighinolfi as part of the same strategy that led Democrats last year to target Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Patricia Aho and, more recently, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew.
Rep. Lawrence Lockman (R-Amherst), an LCRED member, excused himself from the committee hearing after declaring the Democrat-led affair a “partisan witch hunt.”
“The whole thing was choreographed and stage managed,” said Lockman. “The Democrats had briefing papers and questions they shared with each other. They did not share information with Republicans. It was gotcha politics at it’s worst.”
Lockman said he has twice heard from constituents who have had issues with the workers comp board. “In both cases, [Sighinolfi] reviewed the entire case file within 24 hours and resolved both problems to everyone’s satisfaction.”
“John Patrick has picked a fight with someone who is head-and-shoulders above him in integrity,” he said.
The committee is expected to reconvene in the coming weeks to further pursue the Sighinnolfi matter, though it is not clear what actions Democrats on the committee are interested in, or capable of, taking.