AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage endangered the fair-hearings process last year when he summoned unemployment-claims hearing officers to a lunch at the Blaine House to discuss his concerns about inconsistent results in appeals cases, the U.S. Department of Labor said in a review released Thursday.
The federal review showed that the administration’s labor commissioners have intervened in the work of hearing officers by questioning them about decisions they have made in individual cases, which “could be perceived as an attempt to influence the appeals decision-making process in favor of employers.”
The review also says that Maine’s system for handling unemployment appeals doesn’t always meet federal guidelines and should be revised in certain technical areas, related to the handling of evidence and the legal weight given to rulings by the state’s Unemployment Insurance Commission.
The author of the eight-page review, Holly C. O’Brien, regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Labor and Office of the Solicitor General, wrote that while the agency found no statistical evidence that LePage’s meeting with the hearing officers influenced appeals decisions, the effects could surface later.
She said the federal department will closely monitor Maine’s performance and do quarterly case reviews to ensure that all parties are treated fairly.
O’Brien also urged the Maine Attorney General’s Office to work with the LePage administration to fix the technical problems identified in the review.
LePage issued a statement saying he expected the review would find that Maine’s system doesn’t always meet federal guidelines.
“It is also no surprise that the Obama administration’s Department of Labor is speculating my administration somehow tried to influence the hearings process,” he said. “This issue has been politically motivated from the start, starting with Democratic activists in Maine and reaching all the way to the White House. The (Department of Labor) review found no evidence of wrongdoing, but uses conjecture and supposition to come to a conclusion that has no basis in fact. The focus of my administration is to ensure the appeals process is fair and consistent for both Maine employees and employers.”
David Webbert, an employment attorney who last year called for the federal inquiry, said the findings are thorough and “damning.” Webbert said he hopes the governor will learn from the report’s findings.
“The major finding is that the governor and his political appointees were improperly interfering with what’s supposed to be a judicial-like process,” Webbert said. “Being elected governor doesn’t mean that you’re all-powerful and that you get to control every decision. We have this thing called checks and balances.”
APPEALS PROCESS MUST BE ‘INSULATED’
Julie Rabinowitz, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Labor, said concerns raised in the report regarding the handling of evidence had been the subject of numerous complaints about the hearing process. The complaints had prompted several meetings with interested groups and the Attorney General’s Office. However, the complaints continued, prompting the administration to call the meeting at the Blaine House on March 21.
Rabinowitz said the federal review shows that the concerns were justified.
However, the review says the administration erred by trying to resolve those issues with the meeting at the governor’s mansion. O’Brien, the federal labor administrator, recommended that the governor and his political appointees ensure that the appeals process is “insulated from outside pressures that might compromise even the appearance of fairness and impartiality.”
“The administration also must ensure hearing officers are free from actual or perceived intimidation,” O’Brien wrote. “In particular, the administration must make clear no personnel action will be taken against hearing officers over this matter.”
The review was addressed to Maine Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette. In a written statement, Paquette said the findings of inconsistency in the appeals process “confirm that Maine’s appeals system has not been consistent in applying the law.”
Paquette said nothing about the report’s finding that she personally interfered in the process and “exceeded the normal management prerogative of managing the day-to-day operations.”
EMAILS SHOW OFFICERS FELT INTIMIDATED
The administration contended that the meeting at the Blaine House was “cordial” and that the governor’s intent was to ensure a more consistent appeals process. But emails obtained through a Freedom of Access Act request last year showed that attendees felt intimidated.
“In the decades I’ve been doing this work, I’ve never seen anything like it, from either end of the political spectrum,” wrote Wayne Reed, one of the hearing officers. “For purposes (of) keeping political pressure/bias out of (a) quasi-judicial process within the Maine Department of Labor, these are dark times.”
Reed sent the email to the chief hearing officer on March 22, the day after the meeting.
Reed’s email was in more than 200 pages of documents obtained by the Press Herald. The documents contain email correspondence between the administration, hearing officers and their supervisors before and after the meeting.
The documents show that the administration did not want the hearing officers to “feel anxiety” about meeting with LePage, but that hearing officers and their supervisors were concerned before and after the meeting. The documents also show that Reed and others felt the governor and Jennifer Duddy, LePage’s lone appointee to the state’s Unemployment Compensation Commission, were forcing the officers into “defensive decision-writing.”
Reed’s supervisor, Linda Rogers-Tomer, who retired recently, wrote last year that she felt “blindsided” by comments made by Duddy during the meeting.
COMMITTEE TO DISCUSS FINDINGS
Hearing officers act as the first line in disputes between employers and workers who have filed for unemployment benefits. Their role is federally mandated and their performance is audited regularly by state supervisors and the U.S. Department of Labor.
Last year, the governor commissioned a task force to review the appeals hearing system. The commission found no evidence of bias but did suggest improvements that align with the findings in the federal review. The commission did not review the effects of the Blaine House meeting.
Former Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Daniel Wathen, one of the commission’s co-chairmen, told the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee in January that he saw no evidence of effects from the meeting, but it was not part of the commission’s job to review it.
The Government Oversight Committee has been waiting for the results of the federal review for several months. Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, said the committee will consider what action it will take on the matter when it convenes Friday.
Ginette Rivard, president of the Maine State Employees Association, urged the oversight committee to dig deeper.
Rivard said the governor’s “defiant and belligerent” response to the report makes it clear that he will not “reform his administration on his own.”
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: