April 18, 2013

Feds look into charge targeting LePage

Auditors view unemployment files in response to complaints of undue pressure by the governor.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — Federal regulators are auditing unemployment claims at the Maine Department of Labor, Democratic legislative leaders said Wednesday.

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Maine Gov. Paul LePage

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This highlighted image of the visitor's log Wednesday showed that two staff members from the U.S. Department of Labor had met with Laura Boyett, director of the state Bureau of Unemployment Compensation, for more than four hours on Tuesday. The same two federal employees met with Boyett on Wednesday morning.

Photo by Steve Mistler

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PDF: Letter from attorney David Webbert to U.S. Department of Labor

The audit began Tuesday, one day after an unemployment lawyer asked the U.S. Labor Department to investigate allegations that Gov. Paul LePage pressured hearing officers at a meeting last month to favor employers over employees in unemployment compensation disputes.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage would not confirm the audit Wednesday. Instead, the administration issued a press release announcing that LePage will sign an executive order to establish a commission to investigate Maine's entire unemployment compensation system.

LePage said in the release that a state investigation is needed because of unspecified "inconsistencies in the unemployment compensation system."

He said the separate request for a federal review of his March 21 Blaine House meeting with Maine's unemployment compensation hearing officers was "politically motivated," and based on anonymous reports published in the media.

The issue is important to businesses because the outcomes of unemployment appeals can affect the contributions they must make to a trust that funds unemployment benefits. The more unemployment claims there are against a business, the more it pays into the trust.

Maine Labor Department records show that in 2012, about 40 percent of workers who were fired for alleged misconduct successfully appealed decisions denying them unemployment benefits. Workers won 511 of the 1,292 cases. The other 781 cases, about 60 percent, were settled in favor of the employer.

The average weekly benefit for Maine workers is $281.

Cases involving fired workers are among those likely to be inspected by the U.S. Department of Labor, which sent two auditors to Augusta, according to visitor logs at the state Labor Department. The auditors met with Laura Boyett, director of the state Bureau of Unemployment Compensation, for more than four hours on Tuesday. They met with Boyett again on Wednesday morning.

Barb D'Amore, one of the federal auditors who signed the log, declined to comment when reached by phone Wednesday. D'Amore referred questions to a federal Labor Department spokesman who did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

D'Amore and the other agent, John Murphy, are from the federal Employment and Training Administration division, which audits unemployment claims. The division was contacted Monday by David Webbert, president of the Maine Employment Lawyers Association, a group whose members specialize in representing workers in unemployment compensation cases.

Webbert requested an investigation of LePage and "other high-level officials" in the administration for violating federal laws that require impartial hearings in appeals of unemployment claims.

A number of unemployment compensation hearing officers were summoned to a meeting with LePage and other administration officials on March 21 to discuss concerns about the appeals process. After the meeting, some of the hearing officers told the Sun Journal that they felt LePage was pressuring them to decide cases in favor of businesses.

The hearing officers were not identified because they requested anonymity, saying they feared retribution if they came forward publicly. Records obtained by the Portland Press Herald under the Freedom of Access Act indicate that at least one of the officers, Wayne Reed, felt political interference.

"In the decades I've been doing this work, I've never seen anything like it, from either end of the political spectrum," Reed wrote in an email to the chief hearing officer a day after the meeting with LePage. "For purposes (of) keeping political pressures/bias out of (a) quasi-judicial process with the Maine Department of Labor, these are dark times."

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