AUGUSTA — A legislative vote Thursday to accept a report that found Gov. Paul LePage’s threat to withhold state funding for a private school in Fairfield prompted the firing of House Speaker Mark Eves sets the stage for possible impeachment proceedings next year. More likely, however, is that the high profile fact-finding report will provide valuable evidence for Eves’ civil lawsuit against the governor.

Those prospects hovered in the background as the Government Oversight Committee voted 7-5 to accept the 25-page report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, after a lengthy and often heated debate. Republicans on the panel did not dispute OPEGA’s finding that the governor’s threat to withhold $530,000 in funding from Good Will-Hinckley forced the private nonprofit to rescind its job offer make Eves its next president.

Instead, Republicans focused on the governor’s stated motive: That Eves was unqualified for the job.

Several lawmakers worried that the governor’s actions will set a disturbing precedent, while others believed that Eves’ hiring by Good Will-Hinckley was politically motivated and unfair.

Five Republicans voted to accept the majority of the OPEGA report, but they rejected the portion that asserted that Good Will-Hinckley followed a rigorous and fair hiring process.

Those arguments are expected to be the focus of the civil lawsuit that Eves filed against the governor in July. Eves has argued that the governor blackmailed Good Will-Hinckley and violated his First Amendment rights. His attorney, David Webbert, released a statement Thursday saying that the OPEGA inquiry “will provide a strong foundation for Maine’s federal court and a Maine jury to determine whether Governor LePage broke the law and should be held personally accountable.”

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers said Thursday that endorsement of the OPEGA report by the Government Oversight Committee should not end the controversy. Rep. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, one of several legislators who requested the investigation, said he and other lawmakers plan to reprimand the governor. He said they have asked that the Office of Attorney General appoint a special prosecutor to determine if LePage violated state law. They have also contacted Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney.

Chipman said the lawmakers don’t know yet whether either office will agree to their request. If they don’t, he said the lawmakers will ask the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives to initiate impeachment proceedings or a censure.

“We’re pursuing several options that include, but are not limited to, impeachment,” Chipman said. “There are several actions that can be taken in the House that can hold the governor accountable for his behavior. We feel an obligation to do that.”

HISTORICALLY, NO IMPEACHMENT

Nationally, there have been 17 impeachment proceedings against governors, eight convictions, according to the Council of State Governments. No Maine governor has ever been impeached.

The likelihood that the Legislature would oust LePage is remote, because Republicans control the Senate.

Democratic leaders also vowed to explore options, but stopped short of calling for impeachment.

“It’s clear that we have to do everything in our power to prevent this governor or any future one from abusing their power to punish people they disagree with,” said Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond of Portland.

Lawmakers’ reaction to the report followed an intense debate by the oversight committee before it voted to accept the OPEGA report. Legislative investigators found that the administration moved to withhold funding from Good Will-Hinckley after the governor expressed opposition to its plans to hire Eves as its next president.

The report laid out a time line that shows when the administration began voicing its displeasure over the school’s plans, but makes no determination of wrongdoing. Investigators found that Tom Desjardin, the acting education commissioner, ordered finance staff to withhold the first quarterly payment to Good Will-Hinckley after meetings in which LePage told his senior staff that he no longer could support the school.

The oversight panel later received sworn testimony from officials from Good Will-Hinckley, the LePage administration and the Harold Alfond Foundation that largely corroborated the OPEGA report. LePage officials, however, denied that they made an explicit threat to Good Will-Hinckley’s representatives to withhold funding – even though the governor acknowledged doing so in a June interview with reporters.

Many lawmakers found the report’s findings troubling.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chairman of the committee, acknowledged that the OPEGA report will lead some to determine that the Republican governor acted appropriately when he threatened to withhold $530,000 from Good Will-Hinckley unless the school rescinded its job offer to Eves, leading to the Democratic leader’s firing. However, Katz did not agree that LePage’s actions were justified.

Katz worried that the governor’s actions will set a new precedent. Katz said Good Will-Hinckley has a “right to make their own hiring decisions without interference from anyone.”

“Are we entering an era when politicians will have veto power over private hiring decisions?” asked Katz, adding that the governor’s move could cause lawmakers and other private entities to fear retribution for their votes or actions.

Katz was the only Republican to accept the report in its entirety. Republicans on the committee zeroed in on an assertion made frequently by the governor and his supporters: that Eves wasn’t qualified for the job.

Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, lamented the committee’s decision not to examine Good Will-Hinckley’s hiring process.

“This was not a fair (hiring process),” Sanderson said.

WAS AUTHORITY OVERSTEPPED?

Other members of the committee were convinced that the governor overstepped his authority.

“It concerns me greatly that we have an abuse of power that the governor threatened Good Will-Hinckley with funding and admitted as much,” said Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville.

Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, said that the governor’s actions were unethical and set a poor example.

“For me this is about modeling behavior,” she said. “The most powerful person in our state is showing us that this is how you get things done. What was done was wrong.”

Republicans continued to question Good Will-Hinckley’s decision to hire Eves. Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, said the committee’s review was unfair because it didn’t explore that issue. Burns also said the governor was open about his displeasure.

“I do know there is such a thing as executive privilege,” he said. “I do know we want our executive to exercise that.”

Beth Ashcroft, the director of OPEGA, defended her agency’s determination that Good Will-Hinckley’s hiring process was fair and thorough.

“It wasn’t like he (Eves) applied and he was hired,” Ashcroft said.

Republican criticism was spurred by Nov. 12 testimony by Bill Brown, an Eves aide who also is the chairman of the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, a charter school operated by Good Will-Hinckley. Katz and Democrats on the committee stopped the Republican-led line of questioning, arguing that the topic was beyond the scope of the committee’s investigation.

Brown recused himself from any discussion of Eves’ consideration for the job, but he participated in the discussion of other candidates and provided the speaker with advice. Brown acknowledged that he should have removed himself entirely from the process.

After the meeting, Sanderson asserted that Eves had voted against charter schools and that the governor was justifiably concerned with the hiring. She was then asked if Good Will-Hinckley would hire Eves if officials thought he would do the organization harm. Sanderson didn’t directly answer, but said there were legitimate questions about the hiring process that the oversight committee did not explore.

“The rules were changed in the game,” Sanderson said, adding, “I wish I would have been able to pursue that line of questioning, but there were others on the committee who were solely focused on the governor, what the governor did, what they feel the governor did wrong.”

Johnson said the focus on the hiring process was a distraction from the governor’s actions.

“This is not a fiefdom. This is representative government, he said.”

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the OPEGA review “was little more than a political witch hunt triggered by overreaching politicians who have a history of leading attacks on the Governor.”

She added, “As the Governor has said along, there’s nothing there. Even Committee Chair Katz admitted there was no crime committed by anyone. It’s time to move on from this kind of political chicanery and get to work for the people of Maine.”

The oversight committee will vote on additional findings gathered in sworn testimony and documents at a later date.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: @stevemistler


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