AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s oversight committee delayed a decision Friday on investigating allegations that Gov. Paul LePage pressured unemployment hearing officers to make decisions more favorable to employers. 

The panel voted unanimously to postpone action until it can determine the scope of other inquiries into Maine’s unemployment system, namely relating to what took place at a March 21 Blaine House luncheon involving LePage, other administration officials and eight hearing officers.

If it is determined other inquiries won’t examine that specific issue, the panel could choose whether or not to investigate it at its next meeting in May.

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

“This is a serious issue,” said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, at Friday’s meeting of the Government Oversight Committee. “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 what the best approach would be. 

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

Emails obtained by the Portland Press Herald under a Freedom of Access request earlier this month showed employees in the unemployment bureau felt that the March meeting with LePage was a “group scolding” and that the governor wanted pro-business outcomes.

Those emails partially corroborated a story in the Sun Journal that quoted anonymous hearing officers who attended the meeting. LePage has denied the allegation, 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, while Democrats wanted to fast-track an inquiry by its investigative arm, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, the committee’s House chair, urged the committee in a letter to ask OPEGA 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 was to get answers to those questions “into our review process and answer it as soon as it can possibly be done 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 precipitated a request for a federal inquiry by an association of attorneys who represent workers. In a complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor, the association claimed that LePage interfered with the fair hearing process.

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

A U.S. Labor Department spokesman has confirmed that the conversation took place but would not detail what was said.

LePage, who has said he welcomes an OPEGA investigation, recently began appointing a special commission to examine unemployment issues. Last week, Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the commission’s mission would be taking an “in-depth look at the state’s entire unemployment compensation system to make sure that it is fair and consistent for all Mainers.”

The Government Oversight Committee has the power to subpoena witnesses, so the unemployment bureau’s staff could be summoned to testify. 

David Webbert, the attorney with the Maine Employment Lawyers Association who filed the federal complaint, has told the Press Herald that he has spoken with some of the hearing officers who attended the Blaine House meeting.

Webbert said the officers have been reluctant to complain publicly or to approach Attorney General Janet Mills because they feared that would hinder their ability to continue doing their jobs.

Correction: This story has been corrected to state what the committee said it will seek before deciding whether to launch an investigation.  

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