Governor LePage sounded off today on a federal report that says his administration interfered with the unemployment appeals process and may have pressured hearing officers to favor employers in those hearings. We caught up with the governor at the Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport.
LePage spoke publicly for the first time about a letter sent by the U.S. Department of Labor to Maine Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette. The letter outlined concerns with Maine’s unemployment claims appeals process and, specifically, a mandatory luncheon LePage hosted at the Blaine House for Department of Labor officials, where some of them said they were scolded for finding too many unemployment benefit appeals cases in favor of the workers. That’s a charge the governor flat-out denies.
According to the letter sent to Paquette, the investigation did not find any “statistical evidence” that the luncheon had any immediate impact on the decisions of appeals officers, but it did find “reason for concern that warranted continued attention” from the federal government. Despite the fact that a statement released yesterday by Pauqette called the investigation and its findings “independent and non-partisan”, adding that “Maine’s appeals system has not been consistent in applying the law”, the governor had a different take on it.
“Folks do not, do not forget, it’s an election year, because that document is pure election year rhetoric,” LePage told reporters.
LePage says the controversial Blaine House luncheon in question has been mischaracterized by those of us in the media who he says have gotten his intentions all wrong.
“I didn’t go in there supporting the employer. I went into the meeting supporting the employee,” Lepage said. “None of you, none of you reported that. So I am for the employee that deserves to have a paycheck for doing work and being laid off. I am for that person getting that check. I’m for helping that person get another job. It was never about employer/employee. It was all about the people who were left every Saturday, people coming in saying ‘I’ve been trying to get my unemployment and can’t get it.’ That’s the people I’m after. Those are the people we want to help.”
When asked if the people who were at that luncheon who said they were scolded for not siding with employees in unemployment claims disputes were lying, he answered “yes absolutely.” He then sounded off on one employee in particular who he said no longer works for the state but added “I think she came from Mars or maybe the moon, I’m not sure.”
Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, an Allagash Democrat, who, after the letter came out, said LePage should be impeached, backed off those comments Friday.
“Am I calling for an impeachment, no,” Jackson told reporters. “But I think that’s probably something that’s as bad as you can do when you use your influence as a government official to squeeze people underneath you to break the law because you’re telling them they have to.”
When LePage was asked if he would host another meeting like the one in March that got him in hot water with the federal government, he said “absolutely”.
“I think there’s absolutely no reason why the governor, the chief executive of the state, can’t meet with his employees and discuss some of the issues going on within the state of Maine.”
The Government Oversight Committee met this morning to discuss the matter. Those discussions are expected to continue when the committee meets again at the end of next month.