Rep. Ben Chipman (D-Portland) and Rep. Jeff Evangelos (I-Friendship) announce their intent to bring impeachment proceedings against Gov. LePage, ­following the conclusion of the Government Oversight Committee’s probe. (Photo by Andi Parkinson)
Rep. Ben Chipman (D-Portland) and Rep. Jeff Evangelos (I-Friendship) announce their intent to bring impeachment proceedings against Gov. LePage, ­following the conclusion of the Government Oversight Committee’s probe. (Photo by Andi Parkinson)
The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted 7-5 last week to endorse an independent report detailing 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. The report confirmed that interim Department of Education Commissioner Tom Desjardin ordered his department to stop a quarterly payment to GW-H shortly after the governor told him that he didn’t want any discretionary money going to the school due to its decision to hire his Democratic rival. To avoid going into default due to the loss of state and private matching funds, the GW-H board voted on June 24 to fire Eves. Desjardin sent out the payment to the school shortly after. 

Pattern of Abuses

But while the majority of the committee agrees that the report is accurate and credible, Democrats and the five Republican members disagreed about whether LePage was wrong to use the power of his office to force the firing. GOC co-chair Rep. Chuck Kruger (D-Thomaston) said the incident raises “serious questions about our government and political system.”

“If an elected official is able to use the power of his office to punish a lawmaker for his voting record, who among us is safe? Are any of us as lawmakers?” said Kruger. “What about everyday Mainers and independent organizations? They need to be able to go about their business without worrying about crossing the wrong person in power. As elected officials, our consciences and our constituents, not the fear of intimidation and retribution, must be the guide for our actions.” 

GOC co-chair Sen. Roger Katz (R-Augusta), the lone Republican to endorse the entire report, said that he worried about the precedent the governor’s action sets, noting that there are hundreds of similar private entities that receive state funding.

“Are we entering an era where private institutions will feel a need to give politicians a veto power over their internal hiring decisions?” said Katz. “I certainly hope that that’s not the road we’re going down. And this is hardly speculative thinking. I’ve already heard in the past few months of another private organization that had exactly this concern as it went through a hiring process of its own.” 

Katz added that because Maine has a citizen Legislature, legislators need other employment to earn a living. “I hope it will not get to the point where legislators start weighing their votes, worrying that if they push the wrong button that their own present and future employment might be in jeopardy,” he said. “We can’t do our job if every vote, every floor speech is viewed through the lens of ‘what if?’”

Republicans Say LePage was Justified

However, the other five Republicans on the committee voted against accepting the whole report because they disagreed with its finding that Good Will-Hinckley “consistently adhered to a candidate selection process that was well documented, thorough, thoughtful and fair for all candidates.” 

Rep. Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea) accused Eves staffer and Maine Academy of Arts and Natural Sciences board chair Bill Brown of “coaching” Eves because Brown admitted in testimony that he had told his boss about the job and gave him advice on which of his qualifications the speaker should highlight. The 126-year-old institution operates several programs, including MeANS, a charter school that opened in 2011.

While Brown admitted that he had attended one informal meeting in Brunswick with two of the top candidates for the GW-H president position, investigators noted that no decisions were made and Brown recused himself from the rest of the process. Brown is also not a member of the GW-H board, which was the panel that later voted unanimously to select Eves out of the 19 candidates.

 


Sen. David Burns (R-Washington County) called the hiring process “skewed” and said had he been in LePage’s situation, he “probably would have done the same thing.”

“I do know that there is such a thing as executive privilege,” said Burns, “and I do know we expect our chief executives to exercise that from time to time.” 

Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability Director Beth Ashcroft defended her agency’s statement that the GW-H hiring process was fair. “In terms of what a hiring process looks like,” said Ashcroft, “the thoughtfulness of the interview questions, the multiple steps in the process, the huge amount of input from everybody at all different levels of folks at the school, the recusals that were done at particular points, I did see that to be a thorough and fair and well-structured process.” 

The governor’s spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett dismissed the whole investigation as a “a political witch hunt triggered by overreaching politicians who have a history of leading attacks on the Governor.” She added, “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.”

What’s Next?

Without support from some Republicans, it’s unlikely there will be any punishment for the governor’s actions. A few Democratic and independent lawmakers are currently discussing plans to formally further investigate or even impeach the governor for his abuse of power (see story below). However, others worry that a drawn-out, partisan impeachment process would effectively shut down any chance of getting bipartisan reforms done this session, such as passing a bill to force the governor to release the voter-approved Land for Maine’s Future bonds. Still, Democratic leaders have signaled a desire to do “something.”

“As a Legislature, we must do whatever is needed to ensure that no governor will ever dare to contemplate such actions again,” said House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe (D-Skowhegan) in a statement. “We have a number of avenues available to us as possible remedies to crack down on the abuse of office by public officials.”

Meanwhile, Eves’ attorney David Webbert announced last week that he will be amending the speaker’s civil lawsuit against the governor to include some of the facts gathered in the OPEGA investigation. In a statement, Webbert said this type of federal civil rights lawsuit is “one of the most effective ways to protect the people of a state from a governor’s abuses of power.” 

He noted that he is invoking the same section of federal statute in Eves’ case as the families of three massacred Kent State University students used when they filed a civil rights case seeking money for damages over 40 years ago. Webbert wrote that after Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes moved to have the case thrown out of court,  the Supreme Court upheld the families’ suit. He noted that the Court explained that the section “is as an essential safeguard against constitutional protections being overridden by the ‘fiat of a state Governor.’”

“So, Federal court is the right place for a proceeding intended to hold the governor accountable to the public for a reckless abuse of power,” wrote Webbert. “In his Section 1983 civil rights lawsuit, Speaker Eves is requesting both monetary and non-monetary measures that will directly benefit the public. An important part of the monetary relief is a request for punitive damages in an amount to be determined by a Maine jury and awarded only against the Governor personally and not out of public funds. The purpose of this type of damages is not to protect the person suing but to protect the general public by deterring the defendant and others from engaging in civil rights violations in the future.”