AUGUSTA — Partisan viewpoints emerged Friday on the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee as it began its review of a federal investigation that detailed flaws in Maine’s unemployment appeals system and criticized Gov. Paul LePage and his appointees for intervening in the process.
Democrats and Republicans on the 12-member panel gave widely differing views of the report by the U.S. Department of Labor Office of the Solicitor.
The report, issued Thursday, says 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 report says the administration’s labor commissioners have intervened in the work of hearing officers by questioning them about decisions they made in individual cases, which “could be perceived as an attempt to influence the appeals decision-making process in favor of employers.”
It also says 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.
Republicans on the oversight committee tried to delay discussion of the report, which has been on the committee’s agenda for several months as the panel awaited the outcome of the federal inquiry.
When discussion began, Republicans said the report validates the governor’s concerns about inconsistent rulings by hearing officers.
Democrats countered that the report shows the state must improve its appeals process, and that the LePage administration was wrong to claim that hearing officers had been biased in their rulings.
“The governor probably overstepped his bounds (with the lunch meeting), I’m not suggesting that he didn’t,” said Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington. “But there’s no evidence that it came to anything.”
Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, noted that the federal findings largely align with those of a commission convened by the governor to study unemployment appeals.
Both reports showed problems with evidence allowance practices in the appeals hearings but no evidence of bias by hearing officers.
“It seems to me is what we’ve got is a system that needs to make the improvements regarding the rules of evidence and procedure,” Johnson said.
The committee took no immediate action and will continue its review of the issue on March 14.
LePage’s meeting with the hearing officers and the federal inquiry that followed were rare, if not unprecedented, in Maine and nationally.
Brian Langley, the unemployment insurance director for the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, a national organization representing state administrators of unemployment insurance laws, said he could not recall the Department of Labor solicitor initiating a similar probe.
The governor’s commission did not address the Blaine House meeting, but the solicitor’s report did.
“Our fact-finding interviews suggest that LePage administration officials have interfered in the (hearings process),” the report says.
“Our fact-finding revealed that labor commissioners have, on occasion, become directly involved in (hearing officers’) decision-making, such as interviewing staff-level hearing officers and/or their supervisors about specific rulings. The level and nature of this participation has, at times, exceeded the normal management prerogative of managing the day-to-day operations … and can be perceived as an attempt to influence the appeals decision-making process in favor of employers.”
LePage officials initially denied that there was a federal inquiry.
On Thursday, the administration said the federal review confirmed the governor’s concerns.
But in a written statement, LePage blasted the finding that he erred in influencing the process, saying it is politically motivated speculation by the Obama administration and a Democratic network that reaches from Maine to Washington, D.C.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: