AUGUSTA — Thursday’s release of a federal review that says Gov. Paul LePage and his administration may have intimidated unemployment-appeals hearing officers and exerted political influence in an impartial process became instant ammunition for the governor’s political opponents.
LePage and his Republican supporters deflected the criticism by saying the report by the U.S. Department of Labor solicitor general is a politically charged document issued by the Obama administration. The governor’s challengers in this year’s election pounced on the report, whose findings dovetail with their characterization of LePage as a “bad CEO” with little regard for regulations or the people standing in his way.
“It’s unfortunate that there was a need for this investigation at all and the findings are another black eye for the governor’s office,” said independent candidate Eliot Cutler. “It’s also unacceptable that the administration appeared to try and cover it up by denying there was even an investigation.”
The Democratic candidate, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, said, “It’s clear from the U.S. Department of Labor’s letter that Gov. LePage allowed his personal bias against Maine workers to create a situation in which impartial hearing officers felt threatened. His actions and the actions of his appointees were inappropriate and reinforce a disturbing pattern of mismanagement and intimidation.”
Republicans were largely quiet about the report. Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, the House minority leader, defended LePage.
“Democrats are quick to politicize a report from the Obama administration criticizing the governor for his hands-on approach to an unemployment appeals process that many have viewed as being too anti-business,” Fredette said in a written statement. “The substance of this report is more interesting to me, however. It highlights issues that we know have been a problem in Maine’s unemployment system for quite some time.”
LePage’s political adviser, Brent Littlefield, also issued a statement.
“It is unfortunate this report was issued in an election year with major political overtones,” he said. “David Webbert, a paid attorney who helped create concerns on this matter, is a longtime Democratic party donor – including to Michael Michaud’s campaigns.”
The Maine Democratic Party and the Democratic Governors Association – a national group that is working to unseat LePage this year – castigated the governor in media statements, with the party calling the governor’s Blaine House meeting with the hearing officers last year “an abuse of power.”
“The results of this investigation once again confirm that Paul LePage has given up on struggling families here in Maine, and he’s given up on justice and fairness,” said party Chairman Ben Grant. “Nothing could be more poisonous to the public’s attitude about government than the perception that the game is rigged.”
Democrats’ union allies used the report to cast LePage as favoring businesses over the unemployed.
Don Berry, president of the Maine AFL-CIO, said the report is “another message from Governor LePage to struggling Maine workers that he is not on their side.”
State Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, also slammed LePage. Jackson, who is running for the 2nd Congressional District seat now held by Michaud, has traded many rhetorical jabs with the governor – some highly personal.
“For three years we have heard story after story about the governor’s intimidation and bullying tactics,” Jackson said in a prepared statement. “Today, the cat’s out of the bag. Governor LePage and his political appointees will stoop to any level of intimidation to get what they want.”
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: