AUGUSTA, Maine — Federal officials said Thursday that unemployment hearing officers in Maine could have felt pressured by Gov. Paul LePage to favor employers, but they found no conclusive evidence of biased rulings.
The U.S. Department of Labor investigation into Maine's unemployment system followed reports that the Republican governor, during a meeting at the Blaine House last year, pressured the hearing officers who decide unemployment benefit appeals to favor businesses more often.
LePage has denied allegations that he scolded hearing officers and said he was only urging officers "to follow the letter of the law."
The federal inquiry found that LePage's "direct intervention" and state Department of Labor officials' involvement in the appeals process could "be interpreted as an attempt to intimate or direct hearing officers to view employers more sympathetically," according to a letter to the state from Holly O'Brien, regional administrator for the Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration.
The findings were first reported Thursday by the Sun Journal newspaper.
LePage called the investigation "politically motivated."
"The U.S. DOL review found no evidence of wrongdoing but uses conjecture and unsubstantiated assumptions to come to a conclusion that has no basis in fact," he said in a statement. "The focus of my administration is to ensure the appeals process is fair and consistent for both Maine employees and employers."
The federal report's conclusion that there was no evidence of biased rulings echoes the findings of a special state panel that examined the process for resolving unemployment claim disputes. In December, the state commission found inconsistencies in the unemployment benefits system and concluded that understaffing could cause delays that prevent benefits from reaching laid-off workers or prevent overpayments by employees.
The U.S. Department of Labor found that state labor officials have occasionally been directly involved in the unemployment claims system's decision-making process by interviewing hearing officers or supervisors about rulings "with what could be perceived as a bias toward employers, endangering the fair hearing process."
House Democratic Leader Seth Berry of Bowdoinham called the report a "shocking" example of the LePage's pattern of "governing by intimidation."
"For the governor to double down on his previous statements and to try to misrepresent what he did, which was to bully them at the Blaine House, is unconscionable," he said.
Investigators are urging the state to take several steps to improve the unemployment appeals process, including ensuring that it's "insulated from pressures that might compromise even the appearance of fairness and impartiality."
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