Federal regulators review charges LePage bullied unemployment auditors

Posted Wednesday, April 24, 2013 in Investigation

Federal regulators review charges LePage bullied unemployment auditors

by Gina Hamilton

AUGUSTA -- Federal regulators are looking into charges unemployment auditors made that Gov. Paul LePage tried to intimidate them into refusing unemployment claims to help businesses keep their unemployment insurance rates low.

The audit began a week ago 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.

LePage's office said the unprecedented audit was "routine".  The same day, LePage announced a commission to look at unspecified "inconsistencies" in the unemployment compensation system.

“Politically motivated demands for the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate a lunch meeting I had with hearings officers are based on anonymous allegations in media reports,” said LePage. “This orchestrated effort is designed to distract Mainers from the real issue, which is inconsistencies in the unemployment system. But I remain focused on assuring Mainers that there is fair and consistent application of the law throughout the process. That’s why I am calling for an all-encompassing investigation of the entire system.”

LePage said that his panel will have both employers and employees on it.

State 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 the fired workers will be examined by the federal auditors.

Two federal auditors have already been to the Labor Department.  They were asked to come by David Webbert, the president of the employment lawyers' professional association.  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.

Several of the lawyers had been summoned to a meeting 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.  At least one of the lawyers said he felt pressured to find cases in favor of employers.

All of the officers said that LePage's appointee to the Unemployment Compensation Commission, Jennifer Duddy, as well as the governor, were exerting undue political interference in a process that is governed by federal rules and in any case should be non-partisan. 

Webbert had initially considered asking Attorney General Janet Mills to investigate, but ultimately decided the federal government should get involved.  However, the legislature is considering asking Mills to get involved anyway. 

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