April 22, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Dark times at Maine Labor Department

Think your job is stressful? Put yourself in the place of the eight unemployment hearing officers summoned to the Blaine House last month:

You get an email from your boss telling you that Gov. Paul LePage would like to dine with you. And by the way, your presence isn't merely requested -- it's required.

Then, over the course of an hour, you listen while the governor and Jennifer Duddy, chairman of the Maine Unemployment Insurance Commission, tell you they're none too happy with the way you've been doing your job.

Their beef? Your rulings are too friendly to employees who have lost their jobs, and not friendly enough to the employers who had good reason to show those deadbeats the door in the first place.

"In the decades I've been doing this work, I've never seen anything like it, from either end of the political spectrum," wrote Wayne Reed, one of the hearing officers, in an email obtained by this newspaper last week through a Freedom of Access Act request.

Reed continues: "For the purposes (of) keeping political pressures/bias out of quasi-judicial process within the Maine Department of Labor, these are dark times."

Indeed. And while LePage tries to make them even darker with his call for a top-to-bottom, "blue ribbon" review of Maine's unemployment compensation system (see: Smokescreen/Political), two questions now loom over this administration like a storm a' brewing:

Exactly what happened at that now-infamous lunch meeting inside the governor's mansion on March 21?

And just as important, when are state and federal investigators going to start showing a little curiosity about what one group of attorneys is already calling a blatant violation of the law?

"Governor LePage (is) intentionally interfering with the neutrality and basic fairness of the appeals system in order to favor employers over workers. Federal law clearly prohibits such interference," wrote David Webbert, president of the 50-plus member Maine Employment Lawyers Association, in a letter last week to the U.S. Department of Labor and the Office of the Inspector General.

Even a month after the lunch took place, on-the-record reports of who said what are hard to come by. The hearing officers, who collect evidence and, much like a judge, rule on disputed unemployment claims, have so far said they're too fearful of retribution to go public.

But like so many pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, the 3-inch stack of emails released last week and not-for-attribution contacts with the media are coming together to form a troubling picture of state government at its worst.

To wit: Unemployment Insurance Commission Chairman Duddy, a LePage political appointee, was asked by LePage at one point in the luncheon to give a brief presentation on Maine's unemployment compensation program.

Duddy, whose commission handles appeals of the hearing officers' rulings, instead lambasted the hearing officers for not conforming with her interpretation of the law -- contained in a lengthy critique and analysis she'd earlier provided to the LePage administration.

Linda Rogers-Tomer, the Maine Department of Labor's chief administrative hearing officer, spoke with Duddy about her remarks the next day.

"I asked why, when the governor asked her to give an overview of the unemployment program, she felt compelled to so publicly criticize DAH (Division of Administrative Hearings) in the presence of the highest elected official in the state rather than what the Governor asked her to speak to," Rogers-Tomer wrote in notes after the 17-minute conversation. "She responded that she did not think it appropriate to give an overview to the hearing officers who have been doing this work for many years."

So Duddy, a political appointee of the guy seated at the head of the lunch table, used her time to throw the hearing officers under the bus.

(Continued on page 2)

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