Eye on Augusta: Committee to Wrap Up Investigation into Eves Firing
Thursday, November 19, 2015 11:05 AM
Last Thursday, November 12, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee heard seven hours of sworn testimonies as part of its fact-finding investigation into Gov. Paul LePage’s threats to withhold public funding to Good Will-Hinckley, a school for at-risk children, in order to force the firing of Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves.
Senator Chris Johnson (D-Lincoln County) and Rep. Richard Campbell (R-Orrington) listen to sworn testimony on November 12 from former interim Department of Education Commissioner Tom Desjardin. (Photo by Andi Parkinson)
In a 29-page report released in September, the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) confirmed that interim Department of Education Commissioner Tom Desjardin ordered his department to stop a quarterly payment of $132,500 to GW-H following the governor’s threats to pull his support for the organization. To avoid the potential loss of $1,060,000 in state funding for the school’s residential program and $2 million in matching private funds, the GW-H board voted on June 24 to fire Eves. The school later agreed to pay $30,000 to Eves in a settlement.
The committee plans to discuss its findings at its next meeting on December 3, but whether it will make recommendations on the facts at hand remains to be seen. For the Legislature, the big question is whether the governor ordered the funding to be cut and whether that constitutes an abuse of power and “blackmail,” as the governor’s critics allege. However, it’s unlikely that the GOP-led Senate will vote to bring the governor to a trial for “misdemeanors” even if the Democratic House voted to impeach.
Nevertheless, on June 29 the governor openly admitted to making the threats to pull funding.
“Yeah, I did. If I could I would, absolutely. Why wouldn’t I?” LePage told reporters in response to questions of whether he intervened in Eves’ hiring. “Tell me why I wouldn’t take taxpayer money to prevent somebody from going into a school and destroying it because his heart is not in doing the right thing for Maine people.”
In a letter to school officials prior to Eves’ firing, LePage questioned the speaker’s qualifications as well as his votes against a law to require school districts to fund charter schools. The 126-year-old institution operates a number of programs including the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences (MeANS), which it opened in 2011. Two years earlier GW-H was forced to end most of its education programs because public and private funding had dried up for its residential program. In 2011, the governor and the Legislature passed the charter school funding law and developed a new funding source through a discretionary fund to support the school’s residential program, which helped it reopen.
In his letter, LePage called Eves a “strident charter school opponent” who is “backed by union bosses who consistently put partisan politics over the best interest of Maine students.” LePage has also accused Eves of being “a plant by the unions to destroy charter schools” and compared his own action to defund GW-H to stopping a domestic violence assault.
If you want to threaten someone, you have to tell them
However, LePage administration staffers deny that they ever explicitly threatened to withhold funding to the school, even though GW-H board members, the former acting president, the school’s lobbyist and a private foundation board chair all say it was loud and clear that the funding was at risk. According to LePage administration advisor Aaron Chadbourne, following a cabinet meeting on June 8, the governor told Desjardin to carefully read the budget after it passes “and we’ll give them exactly what we’re required by law and nothing more.” The next day, Chadbourne said the governor also mentioned the hiring again, to which Desjardin replied, “Oh we’ll see if that’s the case by the end of the day.” Two hours later, Desjardin stopped the quarterly payment to the school.
Desjardin said that while he took LePage’s comments under advisement, he was not acting on a specific directive from the governor when he pulled the funding because the budget wasn’t going to take effect until July 1. He said that he didn’t know a quarterly payment was going out to GW-H until a meeting later in the day on June 9, when DOE Director of Finance and Operations Suzan Beaudoin notified him of the payment. Beaudoin told the committee that upon learning of the payment, Desjardin “paused for a long, long time” before he directed her to stop the check to GW-H.
Desjardin said his reasoning for stopping the payment was because the Legislature’s revised budget shorted the Department by about $1.5 million and GW-H was “low hanging fruit” for potential cuts because the funding for the school’s residential program was originally only supposed to be temporary. He also admitted that LePage’s earlier instruction to withhold all discretionary funding to the school once the budget took effect influenced his decision.
Desjardin also acknowledged that he did tell GW-H board chair Jack Moore on June 5 that the Legislature’s revised budget would require him to find the additional $1.5 million and that it would be “hard to justify” spending the money. He denied that he suggested to Moore that funding would be cut if the Speaker was hired.
“At no time did anyone communicate either to the governor or GW-H that they weren’t getting this money,” Desjardin said. “That to me makes an absence of a threat. I mean, if you’re going to threaten someone, you have to tell them.”
Desjardin said he didn’t learn until later that his decision would cause the school to go under if it wasn’t rectified.
“That was not something anybody wanted,” he said.
“The governor realizes that people make mistakes.”
But several others insist the governor’s staff made it obvious that they would pull the funding if Eves was not fired.
Harold Alfond Foundation Chairman Greg Powell testified that the governor told him on the day before the payment stopped that he would no longer support GW-H if Eves remained its president. Powell said he took “support” to mean the $530,000 in state funding. As a large donor to the school, Powell later wrote a letter from the foundation to GW-H expressing “serious concerns” about its ability to meet its obligations with the potential loss of state support.
Former interim GW-H President Rich Abramson testified that the governor also called him on June 5 expressing displeasure with the hiring.
“There were a few profanity words that were used in describing the speaker and the speaker’s work that I am not going to share with you today,” he said.
Abramson added that LePage didn’t mention funding, but made clear that “you have lost my support if you go forward with this decision.” The governor recommended other potential candidates for the position, but Abramson said they were retired and didn’t apply.
GW-H lobbyist Sara Vanderwood told the committee that on June 5, Chadbourne informed her that the governor was reconsidering his support for the institution because of its hiring decision. She said her understanding was also that the governor’s “support” meant financial support, despite the fact that money wasn’t explicitly mentioned.
“I was brought on as a Republican to keep that money in the budget,” said Vanderwood, who formerly worked in the House Republican office. “My sole purpose was to make sure that money stayed in the budget, and [I] had conversations with Aaron Chadbourne leading up to it. And I think he understood that that’s what my role was.”
She said she later asked Chadbourne if the governor would change his mind and Chadbourne replied that “the governor realizes that people make mistakes and that people can change their mind, particularly if the mistake is rectified.”
Chadbourne denied that he had ever been asked to convey a message to anyone that the funding was in jeopardy. He told the committee that he didn’t know how Vanderwood was left with the impression that funding was at risk because he was new to the job at the time and was not aware that the discretionary funding stream existed.
Later on June 8, Chadbourne said he called GW-H Chairman Jack Moore to try to convince him to reopen the selection process, but Moore told him that the contract with Eves had already been signed. Moore testified last month that after that conversation he was left with the impression that funding was in jeopardy.
Moore also said the board made the decision to fire Eves because the loss of public and private funding would have put the school in default and “put the existence of Hinckley in question.”
“Had we not been in jeopardy of losing the state funding,” he said, “I would think that Mark Eves would be the president.”
Regardless of whether the Legislature decides to pursue efforts to impeach or discipline the governor, the controversy is unlikely to subside anytime soon as Speaker Eves’ civil suit against the governor is still pending. Last week, Eves’ attorney David Webbert said the recent testimonies further strengthen the Speaker’s case. Wrote Webber, “The testimony today before the Government Oversight Committee of the Maine Legislature provided even more proof that (1) Governor LePage blackmailed Good Will-Hinckley to fire Speaker Eves without cause as its new President and (2) Mark Eves was hired because he was the most qualified candidate for the job.”