AUGUSTA – The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee delayed action Friday on ordering an investigation into allegations that Gov. Paul LePage pressured unemployment hearing officers to make decisions more favorable to employers.

The panel voted unanimously to postpone a decision until it determines the scope of other inquiries into Maine’s unemployment system, particularly relating to what happened at a March 21 meeting at the Blaine House involving LePage, other administration officials and eight hearing officers.

If it determines that other inquiries won’t cover that issue, the committee could decide to order an investigation at its next meeting in May.

Some hearing officers who attended the March meeting have said they felt that LePage was berating them for deciding too many benefits appeals in favor of employees.

“This is a serious issue,” said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, at Friday’s committee meeting. “The question of whether there’s been undue influence at the Department of Labor needs to be inquired into.”

Katz, however, made the motion to table the issue, saying it’s too early for the committee to know the best approach.

U.S. Department of Labor auditors met with Maine labor department officials last week to review unemployment claims. And LePage announced that he was appointing a bipartisan commission to evaluate the entire unemployment system.

Emails obtained by the Portland Press Herald showed that employees in the unemployment bureau felt that the meeting with LePage was a “group scolding” and that the governor wanted pro-business outcomes.

LePage has denied that, saying the meeting was held to address concerns about overall fairness.

The committee’s debate Friday fell somewhat along party lines.

Republicans acknowledged that the allegations demand a review but said they wanted to wait for more information. Democrats wanted to fast-track an inquiry by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, the committee’s House chair, urged the committee to ask OPEGA in a letter to answer two questions:

• Was there perceived or actual improper influence by any public official during or related to the March 21 meeting?

• Is legislation, governmental action or any other measure needed to “strengthen and improve” the relationship between the governor’s office and Department of Labor unemployment officials?

Kruger said his aim is to get the answers “into our review process … so we can get it out of the context of the news media and whisperings and backstage talk.”

News reports on the Blaine House meeting prompted an association of attorneys who represent workers to request a federal inquiry. In a complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor, the association claimed that LePage interfered with the fair hearing process.

After that, federal auditors came to Maine to look at unemployment files. LePage spoke with the acting federal labor secretary and said the two were “on the same page” about the scope and purpose of the inquiry.

LePage, who has said he welcomes an investigation by OPEGA, recently began appointing the commission to examine unemployment issues.

 

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

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