AUGUSTA — The state’s watchdog organization agreed Thursday that the investigation into the Department of Labor and its unemployment insurance filing system, ReEmployME, is the next priority after the review of the Department of Health and Human Services.

During a four-hour meeting, the Government Oversight Committee spent the majority of its time discussing the review of DHHS, which oversees child and family services and was the subject of a report claiming it had done a poor job of protecting two young children who were killed in child abuse cases.

After discussion of what the next steps should be in the DHHS review, Beth Ashcroft, the director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, said OPEGA then would get started on the labor department investigation. She said OPEGA had been putting that off until it had a better sense of what resources and efforts would be needed for the DHHS review.

No timeline was discussed at the meeting, but Ashcroft has said in the past the agency was hoping to get it started by the end of June, though the DHHS review was the priority.

The investigation into the labor department stems from the rollout of the controversial unemployment insurance filing system, ReEmployME, which lawmakers have panned for being rushed and ill-conceived. The system frequently left unemployed workers trying to file claims for benefits locked out of their accounts and unable to file. The department now is pushing forward with the next phase of ReEmployME, which is aimed at the employer side of the system and how taxes are paid into the system.

Ashcroft, who plans to leave her position in late August, also announced her replacement during the meeting. Danielle Fox, a legislative analyst with the state’s Office of Policy and Legal Analysis, will take over for Ashcroft and was introduced to the oversight committee on Thursday. Ashcroft’s final day with the agency will be Aug. 24.

The labor department maintained the new system was working as it should, but whistleblower information and leaked documents marked “confidential” that were obtained by the Morning Sentinel told a different story. Those accounts stated ReEmployME was rushed out despite serious concerns from people within the department, and that high-ranking officials in the department, and specifically in the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation, illegally ordered that records of claimants’ complaints be destroyed.

The department has maintained that these accusations, corroborated by multiple sources, are false and have denied any wrongdoing. In multiple legislative hearings, lawmakers expressed skepticism about these claims of innocence.

During the oversight committee’s meeting Thursday, lawmakers were critical of DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton, who was not at the meeting to answer their questions, contrary to what they had requested. The panel unanimously voted to subpoena Hamilton after getting assurances from Gov. Paul LePage that Hamilton would come before the committee.

“How dumb are we to have taken him at his word?” said Sen. Roger Katz, an Augusta Republican who co-chairs the committee. “And how dumb are we not to have issued a subpoena for the commissioner to be here? We are all supposed to be on the same team.”

Hamilton’s absence is similar to actions of other department heads in the LePage administration. During discussions in the joint Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, labor department officials seldom came before the committee despite members inviting them to answer questions. Labor Commissioner John Butera did make one appearance, however, assuring the lawmakers that the system was working as expected. The labor department has not responded to multiple requests for an interview with John Feeney, director of the BUC, nor has it fulfilled multiple Freedom of Access Act requests seeking information concerning managers and the management of the system, other than to acknowledge receipt of the requests sent by the Morning Sentinel. It routinely has said all news media requests must be sent in writing, so answers may be sent to all members of the news media.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

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Twitter: @colinoellis