AUGUSTA — Lawmakers voted to subpoena two of Gov. Paul LePage’s senior advisers Thursday as part of a committee investigation into allegations that LePage overstepped his authority when he threatened to pull state funding for a private school in Fairfield unless it rescinded a job offer to House Speaker Mark Eves.

The Government Oversight Committee vote’s to subpoena the governor’s legal counsel and senior education adviser followed testimony by Jack Moore, chairman of the board of Good Will-Hinckley. Moore told the committee that the governor’s threat jeopardized the school’s solvency and forced it to terminate its contract with the Democratic leader.

Moore’s testimony came as the panel considered whether to deepen its investigation to further explain the findings in a 25-page report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the watchdog agency that is overseen by the committee. The panel voted 8-3 to subpoena Aaron Chadbourne, a senior policy adviser, and Cynthia Montgomery, LePage’s legal counsel. Both had refused to appear voluntarily before the committee, citing a lawsuit by Eves against the governor.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said Moore’s testimony raised more questions for the committee to explore, although he did not specify what those questions were. He said the panel will not make a determination of wrongdoing, but seeks a full explanation for the public of what happened.

It’s unclear what the committee hopes to learn from Montgomery and Chadbourne, although several lawmakers said the two appeared to play a key role in executing the governor’s threat to take money from Good Will-Hinckley. Some lawmakers indicated that they objected to the administration’s resistance to a fact-finding probe that could resolve a dispute that has rocked the State House since June.

“This committee is always stalwart in sticking to get the information,” said Diamond, adding that the move to subpoena was not taken lightly.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Bob Duchesne, D-Holden, noted that nearly 20 people who commented in the public hearing wanted the committee to go further, including a declaration of wrongdoing, a precursor to impeachment.

“At a dead minimum they (the public) don’t want us to be stonewalled,” Duchesne said.

There have been 17 impeachment proceedings of U.S. governors and just eight convictions, according to the Council of State Governments. No Maine governor has been impeached.

LePage has acknowledged making the threat to withhold funding for Good Will-Hinckley, which operates one of the state’s first charter schools, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences. The governor has said he opposed the school’s decision to hire Eves because the House Speaker has consistently taken positions against charter schools

LePage has characterized the inquiry into his funding threat against Good Will-Hinckley as a “witch hunt” and called the entire controversy a media-assisted attack. He has asserted that he will be exonerated, and has also called for the recusal of Sen. Roger Katz, the Republican co-chairman of the oversight committee, on the grounds that Katz is biased.

Katz, who has not recused himself, said it was important for the committee “to separate fact from fiction, and it least in my mind, that line is a bit blurry.” He said the refusal of the governor’s advisers to testify prevented the committee from getting a full accounting of events.

“We didn’t ask to be here, to be doing this.” Katz said. “We are basically being told by a separate branch of government that we cannot conclude our work.”

The 12-member committee is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Katz and Rep. Richard Campbell of Orrington were the Republicans among the eight who voted for the subpoenas.

Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, attended the public hearing, but left before the vote because of a family emergency.

Other Republicans on the committee said they didn’t know what additional information could be obtained from the subpoenas. Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, said that furthering the probe was designed to appease growing discontent over the governor’s actions, some of which he also opposes. However, he said all of the players in the controversy shared blame, including Good Will-Hinckley, which should have known that hiring Eves would have riled the governor.

“I don’t think this is the proper venue to undo that series of mistakes that were made,” he said.

Rep. Anne-Marie Mastriaccio, D-Sanford, said that Burns’ comment that the school should have anticipated the governor’s reaction is precisely the reason the committee should proceed.

Acting Education Commissioner Tom Desjardin, who has previously acknowledged that he ordered the Department of Education to pull the first-quarter funding for Good Will-Hinckley, was also asked to attend Thursday. Desjardin, who injured his back in September, said that he was unable to appear.

Moore, the Good Will-Hinckley board chairman, was the only individual who accepted the committee’s request to testify. During his testimony, he described an apolitical board of trustees wrestling with the prospect of insolvency as it attempted to negotiate the discord the Eves hiring stirred within the LePage administration. He said the board initially worried that hiring Eves would cause problems with the governor, a longtime supporter of the school.

However, Moore said that he and the school never considered that it would be thrust into an political controversy that would ultimately force the board to rescind its offer to pay Eves $120,000 a year to lead the school.

Moore also reiterated early statements that the board considered Eves qualified for the position, which would have put him in charge of the charter school operated by Good Will-Hinckley, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences.

LePage and his supporters have attempted to undercut Eves’ qualifications as justification for the governor’s actions. The governor has described Eves, a frequent opponent of charter schools, as a “plant” by the teachers union designed to infiltrate and destroy the school.

Moore, however, said the board voted unanimously to hire Eves not for political reasons, but because of his fundraising and communication skills. Moore said the board would not have rescinded its offer had it not felt that its future was in jeopardy.

He said that LePage’s threat to withhold $530,000 in state funding would have caused Good Will-Hinckley to lose millions in grant funding from the Harold Alfond Foundation, and ultimately, default on a loan that the school relied upon to maintain operation. The Harold Alfond Foundation indicated in a letter to Good Will-Hinckley that it would pull its $2.75 million in grant funding.

Moore was asked by lawmakers if the letter from the foundation became the trigger to fire Eves. Moore replied, “We didn’t need the letter from the Alfond Foundation to know we were in trouble with the funding there. … Throughout this process we were focused on fulfilling our fiduciary duties. We could not have been doing that by going down the road to a series of defaults that could put Good Will-Hinckley in question. It would have been imprudent for us to just wait for the chips to fall.”

Moore’s description of a chain reaction that would have led to the school’s insolvency was pounced upon by David Webbert, the attorney who is representing Eves in his lawsuit against the governor.

“In short, we now have direct confirmation that the governor engaged in blackmail to get Speaker Eves fired without cause,” Webbert said in an email statement he issued during the committee’s hearing.

Moore’s testimony was consistent with media accounts and the findings of OPEGA’s recent report. Those reports also found that Desjardin moved to withhold the school’s first quarter funding after a June 9 “venting session” between the governor and members of his Cabinet. The meeting occurred the day that the school announced Eves’ hiring.

Desjardin, in written comments provided to the committee on Thursday, said his decision stemmed from the fact that the Legislature had not yet passed a state budget. However, Beth Ashcroft, the director of OPEGA, noted that two other schools in similar situations had received funding and that cuts to Good Will-Hinckley were never considered by legislative budget writers.

Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, said that Desjardin’s explanation didn’t pass “the straight-face test.”

Moore later acknowledged that a private meeting he had with Desjardin on May 22 raised a “yellow flag” that the school’s funding was in jeopardy. He said that subsequent correspondence with the governor raised a “red flag.”

The committee did not vote to subpoena Desjardin because he has indicated that he is willing to testify. However, he has been asked to attend its next meeting Nov. 12. The committee also has asked several education department staffers involved with the decision to halt the school’s first quarter funding to attend, as well as Bill Brown, an Eves staffer who also serves on the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences board of directors.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @stevemistler

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