AUGUSTA — The U.S. Department of Labor says Gov. Paul LePage violated the terms of a federal grant when he removed a labor-themed mural from a state office building last month. Now the federal government, which paid most of the mural’s $60,000 cost, wants its money back.
Gay Gilbert, administrator of the U.S. labor department’s office of unemployment insurance, sent a letter Monday to the Maine Department of Labor, requesting reimbursement.
“Alternatively, the state could again display the mural in its headquarters or in another state employment security building,” Gilbert wrote.
Adam Fisher, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Labor, said the department received the letter Monday morning.
“We have reviewed the letter and are assessing what it may mean for the agency moving forward,” he said in a prepared statement.
Gilbert’s letter is the latest twist in a growing national dispute over LePage’s decision to remove the 36-foot-long mural from the state Department of Labor’s headquarters.
LePage has said that the mural presents a one-sided view of labor history, and that some business owners complained that it is hostile to employers.
The mural, which was installed in 2008, depicts scenes including a paper mill strike in Jay, female shipbuilders at Bath Iron Works and former U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, whose parents were from Maine.
The federal government gave the state a grant that covered 63 percent of the cost of the artwork.
LePage’s order to remove it has drawn attention at a time when lawmakers in Wisconsin and other states are considering measures to restrict collective bargaining by public workers.
Stories about the mural have appeared in newspapers across the country, and comedians on national television shows, such as Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show,” have mocked LePage’s decision.
The April 11 edition of Time magazine notes the controversy in its “Milestones” section, which says: “REMOVED: A mural in Maine’s Department of Labor building that depicted workers’ history; the governor said he had received complaints about the painting’s being too pro-labor.
U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has not commented publicly on the dispute. Her spokesman, Carl Fillicio, said she “has monitored the situation and asked staff to look into it.”
Also Monday, Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree become the first member of Maine’s congressional delegation to comment on the controversy.
She issued a statement calling on the Republican governor to return the mural to the Department of Labor’s lobby.
“The best solution at this point would be to put the mural back up and avoid having to use taxpayer money to pay back the federal government,” she said. “Public art belongs to all of us and I don’t think the governor should have acted so hastily in taking it down. It wasn’t a decision for one person.”
The 11-panel mural is now in storage, awaiting transfer to “a suitable venue for public display,” said LePage’s spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.
About 350 people demonstrated in the State House on Monday in support of the mural. The crowd chanted “Put it back,” “Recall Paul” and “idiot power” — a reference to LePage’s characterization of protesters at a previous pro-mural rally.
Natasha Mayers, a founding member of the Union of Maine Visual Artists, told the crowd that LePage’s behavior since his inauguration three months ago — including his decision to remove the mural — has tarnished the state’s reputation.
She noted a recent editorial in the Hartford Courant, which called the mural’s removal “the most moronic and mindless anti-worker gesture in the country.”
In attempting to “re-brand” the state as pro-business, Mayers said, LePage has “dealt a staggering blow to the state’s tourism industry and creative economy.”
Portland City Councilor David Marshall, who owns an art studio, said the controversy has produced some positive results. He said LePage has made the mural internationally famous.
“He has taught us more about Maine’s labor history than we have ever known,” Marshall said. “He has brought us together.”
One of the speakers at the rally was Charlie Scontras, a labor historian at the University of Maine who advised the artist, Judy Taylor of Tremont, when she was creating the mural. Taylor used Scontras as a model for the shoemaker in the mural’s first panel.
The Maine Republican Party issued a press release Monday that described the mural as “a self-honoring monument” selected by Gov. John Baldacci’s labor commissioner, Laura Fortman.
The party contends that Fortman had Taylor paint her into the mural, in a panel with Perkins. The party distributed photos comparing Fortman with the figure in the mural.
Taylor told the Lewiston Sun Journal that the figures in the mural were based on composites of hundreds of people who walked into her studio.
“Nobody, in particular Laura Fortman, asked me to put them in the mural,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Tom Bell — 699-6261