A high-profile federal lawsuit pitting the state’s top two political opponents against each other will reach the courtroom for the first time on Wednesday afternoon.

At the hearing, Gov. Paul LePage is seeking dismissal of a lawsuit brought by House Speaker Mark Eves accusing him of blackmailing the employer of his political rival into firing him.

LePage’s attorney, Patrick Strawbridge, will argue in U.S. District Court in Portland that, as the state’s chief executive officer, the governor has immunity from Eves’ claim or is otherwise protected by his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

Eves has accused LePage of using taxpayer money and the power of his office to prevent Eves’ hiring as president of Good Will-Hinckley, a nonprofit in Fairfield that operates a charter school partly funded by the state. Eves contends LePage’s actions violated several of Eves’ constitutional rights, including his First Amendment rights of free speech, free association and political affiliation, as well as his 14th Amendment right to due process.

Since Eves, the top Democrat in the Maine Legislature, filed the lawsuit last July against LePage, Maine’s highest-ranking Republican, the two sides had until now only filed written arguments. When attorneys for the two sides appear before U.S. District Judge George Singal on Wednesday, it will be the first oral arguments in the case.

It is unclear whether LePage will attend the hearing. He is not required to be there.

Eves’ attorney, David Webbert, said in an email that the House speaker will be unable to attend as he continues to work in Augusta as the legislative session draws to a close.

The judge has allotted 30 minutes each for Strawbridge and Webbert to speak.

“These disagreements are not surprising, given that the Governor and the Speaker are the leaders of opposing political parties,” Strawbridge wrote in LePage’s motion to dismiss the case. “But those disagreements must be resolved in the political sphere, not in court.”

Webbert argued against LePage’s motion to dismiss in a written response, saying that dismissal of the case would allow LePage and all future governors “an unprecedented and absolute power” to award or withhold money based on political affiliation.

“Governor LePage claims that he and all future Governors have the absolute right to dictate the party affiliation of every policymaker at every private organization in Maine that receives state funds. The scope of this alleged power of the Governor to condition state funding for private organizations on their loyalty to the Governor’s party is astonishingly broad,” Webbert wrote.

Eves claims that Good Will-Hinckley’s board of directors voted June 24 to rescind its offer to hire him as president only after LePage threatened to eliminate $530,000 in state funding for the school.

An amended complaint filed on Dec. 18 by Webbert quotes LePage’s statements to a reporter on June 29, when asked whether he “threatened to withhold money” from Good-Will Hinckley for hiring Eves.

“Yeah, I did! If I could, I would! Absolutely. Why wouldn’t I? Tell me why I wouldn’t take the taxpayer money, to prevent somebody to go into a school and destroy it. Because his heart’s not into doing the right thing for Maine people,” the lawsuit quotes LePage as saying to the reporter.

It also quotes the governor’s statements in a radio interview on July 30, the day Eves initially filed the lawsuit, when LePage answered a question about why he intervened in the school’s hiring of Eves.

“I’ll tell you what my mindset was. This guy is a plant by the unions to destroy charter schools. … I believe that’s what his motive is. … That man had no heart,” the lawsuit quotes LePage as saying. “It is just like one time I stepped in when a domestic violence, when a man was beating his wife. Should I have stepped in? Legally, no. But I did. And I’m not embarrassed about doing it.”

If LePage’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit is unsuccessful, it is unlikely that the case will reach trial before 2017 and could affect his second-term agenda. The governor’s efforts to advance his policies already have been hampered by his estrangement from the Legislature, even though his own party controls the Senate.


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