BY STEVE MISTLER

State House Bureau

Gov. Paul LePage Thursday attempted to clarify his recent comment comparing the Internal Revenue Service to the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, during a fundraiser in Vermont. However, the governor may have reignited a controversy that’s made national headlines.

During an interview with a reporter from the Burlington weekly Seven Days, LePage said that the IRS wasn’t as bad as the Gestapo, the Nazi police force that imprisoned and murdered millions during World War II, but that the agency was headed in that direction.

“What I am trying to say is the Holocaust was a horrific crime against humanity and, frankly, I would never want to see that repeated,” LePage said. “Maybe the IRS is not quite as bad — yet.”

Seven Days reporter Paul Heintz asked, “But they’re headed in that direction?”

LePage responded, “They’re headed in that direction.”

Heintz then asked LePage if he knew what the Gestapo did during World War II. LePage said, “Yeah, they killed a lot of people.” Heintz asked if he thought the IRS was going to kill a lot of people.

“Yeah,” LePage said.

“They’re headed in the direction of killing a lot of people? Are you serious?” Heintz asked.

LePage said he was “very serious,” adding that the agency would be rationing health care.

“They ration health care in Canada,” LePage said. “That’s why a lot of people from Canada come down to the U.S.”

LePage first compared the IRS to the Gestapo on Saturday, during his weekly radio address. He later backtracked on the comments following an outcry from Jewish groups. The head of the IRS workers union also demanded an apology, saying such rhetoric could endanger employees.

LePage’s most recent remarks came Thursday, at a fundraiser for Vermont gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock. Brock later accused Heintz of not asking fair questions, an assessment repeated by LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. She did not attend the event but said Thursday it was clear that Heintz “had an agenda.”

Heintz asked LePage if he thought his comments were insensitive.

LePage said, “Well, let’s put it this way. I apologize to Jewish Americans if they feel offended. But I also apologize to Japanese Americans that were put in prison during World War II, and I also apologize to those people that were accused of being communists during McCarthyism, because that’s not the American way.”

Heintz then asked if he thought the IRS would imprison people.

LePage said: “I don’t know. I don’t know. I just know that I’m a product of the American dream. I came from nothing and have been modestly successful. I have not had to worry about the IRS telling me I have to do things. I’d like to have my independence.”

‘Rationing health care’

When the reporter later asked Brock about LePage’s comments, LePage jumped back into the interview to clarify his remarks.

“Do I think that the IRS is intentionally going to kill someone? No,” LePage said. “Do I think the (Affordable Care Act) is going to force rationing on American people? Yes.”

LePage said he was referring to the rationing of health care that he says occurs in Canada.

Congressional Republicans have made similar claims about rationing in the Affordable Care Act. The claims center on the health care law’s Independent Payment Advisory Board, which critics say can ration care and deny Medicare claims.

However, the Affordable Care Act only empowers the IPAB to make system-wide recommendations to reduce Medicare spending, not on individual cases, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The analysis also notes that IPAB was designed to reduce Medicare spending and that the board’s recommendations can be overruled by Congress.

PolitiFact, a non-partisan organization that fact-checks statements by politicians, recently deemed that a similar rationing claim made by Florida Gov. Rick Scott was false, or “pants on fire.”

LePage’s first Gestapo reference drew a parallel between the Nazi secret police force and the IRS, which will assess tax penalties on individuals who don’t follow the federal health care law’s requirement to buy health insurance.

However, the agency’s authority to collect penalties from the so-called individual mandate is widely disputed, given the enforcement limitations of the Affordable Care Act. The health care law does not allow the IRS to garnish wages or freeze bank accounts to collect the penalty.

Nonetheless, some opponents of the law have said the IRS plans to hire 16,500 agents to enforce the mandate.

The agency has sharply disputed that figure, saying it plans to hire closer to 1,200 employees, many of whom would build the technological infrastructure to support payments and tax credits for individuals and small businesses.

During the Vermont interview, LePage told Heintz that the court decision on the health care law “robbed an awful lot of freedom because we’re going to be told what we have to do.”

He added, “Never in the history of this country have we been told that we have to do something, particularly in the commercial market.”

Widespread negative reaction

Reaction to LePage’s first reference to the Gestapo riled local and national Jewish organizations.

LePage personally apologized to Emily Chaleff, director of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, earlier this week. Chaleff declined to comment on the governor’s recent remarks, saying that she was scheduled to meet with LePage in person today.

Derrek Shulman, New England director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the governor’s comments in Vermont showed that “he doesn’t get it.”

“He has not heard the deep concerns of his constituents and from people around the world,” Shulman said.

Colleen Kelley, president of the IRS union, said in a statement that it was “extremely disappointing and distressing to witness not only the continuing refusal of Maine Gov. Paul LePage to apologize for his gratuitous insult directed at IRS employees, but to see him continue his attacks at a fundraising event.”

She added, “I would hope the governor would take the time to reflect on the importance and dignity of the office he holds, the responsibility it imparts to him as the individual holding that office, and the harmful impact his words have on hard-working federal employees.”

Ben Grant, Chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said the governor “crossed a threshold” with Wednesday’s comments.

“While we’ve become all too familiar with his offensive one-liners, this is the first time he has gone all in on unhinged conspiracy theories and eliminated any notion that he is remorseful about anything that has come out of his mouth,” Grant said. “It’s not even clear that he understands why his comments are controversial.”

Grant added, “I can’t say it more simply than this: Governor LePage’s fitness to hold office must now be seriously and openly questioned.”

While Grant condemned LePage’s comments, the party used them as a fundraising opportunity to bolster its efforts to retake the Legislature. An email sent Thursday to party supporters read, “Stop him (LePage) in 2012. Send him home in 2014.”

Members of Maine’s congressional delegation did not respond to requests for comment.

Steve Mistler — 791-6345

[email protected]

Twitter: stevemistler