Rep. Chuck Kruger (D-Thomaston), House chair of the Government Oversight Committee, answering questions after last week’s hearing. (Photo by Andi Parkinson)
Rep. Chuck Kruger (D-Thomaston), House chair of the Government Oversight Committee, answering questions after last week’s hearing. (Photo by Andi Parkinson)
Last week the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee (GOC) voted to subpoena two senior LePage administration staffers as part of an ongoing investigation into the governor’s decision 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 committee, divided equally between Democrats and Republicans, voted 8-3 to compel LePage chief legal counsel Cynthia Montgomery and senior advisor Aaron Chadbourne to answer questions before the panel at its next meeting, on November 12. 

Both staffers, citing a pending civil lawsuit by Eves against the governor, have refused to answer questions in front of the committee or to cooperate with the nonpartisan Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) in its investigation. Earlier this year, Montgomery argued that the legislative branch has no constitutional authority to investigate the executive branch; the Government Oversight Committee rejected the argument.

The committee also voted last week to invite a half dozen other witnesses, including other LePage administration staffers, a GW-H staff member, a lobbyist and Eves staffer Bill Brown, who also serves on the GW-H affiliated Maine Academy of Natural Sciences board of directors.

Several dozen members of the public attended the hearing on October 15 to express support for continuing the investigation. Many also called for impeachment proceedings. 

“It’s clear that Maine people are passionate about our democracy. They showed up in force today to make sure we were absolutely clear on that fact,” said Rep. Chuck Kruger (D-Thomaston), the House chairman of the committee. “They told us that they want their government to work for the people, that they want accountability and that they do not want Maine people — whether they are elected leaders or everyday citizens — to live in fear of political retribution. They clearly still have questions to which they want us to find the answers. I want them to know that we hear you, loud and clear.”

It’s unclear what else the committee will uncover, as the governor has already openly admitted to forcing Eves’ firing. In a letter to school officials prior to Eves’ firing, LePage questioned the speaker’s qualifications because he had voted against a law to require school districts to fund charter schools. GW-H operates a number of programs including the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences (MeANS). In a letter to the school in early June, LePage called Eves a “strident charter school opponent” who is “backed by union bosses who consistently put partisan politics over the best interest of Maine students.” LePage has also accused Eves of being “a plant by the unions to destroy charter schools” and compared his own action to defund GW-H to stopping a domestic violence assault.

In a 29-page report released last month, OPEGA found that Acting Department of Education Commissioner Tom Desjardin ordered his department to stop a quarterly payment of $132,500 to GW-H in retribution for hiring Eves as its new president. To avoid the potential loss of $1,060,000 in state funding for the school’s residential program and $2 million in matching private funds, the GW-H board voted on June 24 to fire Eves. The school agreed to pay $30,000 to Eves in a settlement.

Desjardin was unable to appear before the panel last week due to health problems, but has agreed to answer questions at a future meeting. OPEGA has failed to clarify whether Desjardin was acting on a direct order from the governor when he later cut funding to GW-H or if he acted on his own as a “precautionary measure” pending the outcome of the dispute between the governor and GW-H. But the report did find that LePage made it very clear to Desjardin that he did not want any discretionary funding going to the school if Eves became president. 

GW-H Board Chairman Testifies

GW-H Board Chairman Jack Moore, who was the only witness to testify last week, contradicted the governor’s contention that Eves was an unqualified applicant or that he was chosen because of his political affiliation. Moore, a Republican, said that the board unanimously supported Eves, and that the board members’ political affiliations are evenly split between the two major political parties. He said that while none of the applicants the board interviewed in its nationwide search fit the qualifications “to a T,”  Eves’ communication skills made him stand out from the rest. 

“This is an outward-facing job,” said Moore. “This is somebody that needs to be our spokesperson. The speaker is a good speaker and that was a skill set that was attractive to us. It entailed raising money. Our view was that he could probably raise money.”

Moore confirmed that the governor sent him a handwritten note prior to the funding cut, which said “something along the lines of ‘I would have trouble supporting Hinckley if you hire such a hack.’” Moore claimed he has since lost the governor’s note. He said the board made the decision to fire Eves because the loss of public and private funding would have put the school in default and “put the existence of Hinckley in question.” 

“Had we not been in jeopardy of losing the state funding,” he said, “I would think that Mark Eves would be the president.”

Republicans Oppose Continuing the Investigation

While two Republicans, including GOC Senate Chairman Roger Katz (R-Augusta), voted to subpoena the LePage staffers, the majority of Republicans on the committee questioned the motives of continuing the investigation. LePage has called it a “political witch hunt” and had demanded Katz recuse himself from the committee’s deliberations because he has been a longtime critic of the governor. 

Sen. David Burns (R-Washington County) said that he didn’t believe more testimony would provide any new information since the governor has already admitted to forcing the firing by cutting funding to the school. He said that if Montgomery and Chadbourne testified it could “possibly be detrimental to whatever they’re facing in the federal civil suit.”

“I wouldn’t want to put my administration in that jeopardy either,” he said.

He added that the whole controversy could have been avoided if all sides had shown “better judgment.”

“You can’t convince me … that board that was going through that process didn’t realize the dangers, the pitfalls, of what they were getting into given what was going on in the Legislature,” said Burns, referencing the power struggle between the Legislature and LePage over the budget last spring. 

Rep. Deb Sanderson agreed with Burns, saying,  “I don’t want to be a member of … a dirt-digging committee.” 

More to Learn

Katz rejected his colleagues’ arguments, arguing that it is important to “separate fact from fiction” when the line is “somewhat blurred” because the two staffers have refused to cooperate with the investigation, despite being “smack dab in the middle” of it. 

“We are basically being told by a separate branch of government that they are not going to cooperate with our legitimate work,” said Katz. “We can accept that and move on with life or we can say no that’s not acceptable. We are the Legislature, we’re doing important work here that we voted by 12-to-nothing to do, and we’re going to stand up for the integrity of this institution.” 

He noted that Montgomery was making the same argument against testifying that Center for Disease Control and Prevention officials used last year when they refused to answer questions about the agency’s shredding of documents. The committee subpoenaed the officials and the case was eventually settled. OPEGA director Beth Ashcroft noted that the CDC employees wanted to testify, but requested to be subpoenaed in order to protect themselves from retribution.

Sen. Chris Johnson (D-Lincoln County) added that Desjardin’s written testimony about why the funding to GW-H was withheld “doen’t pass the straight-face test.” Desjardin wrote that he withheld the funding because the Legislature had not yet passed a budget, even though other schools received their funding at the same time. 

Meanwhile, Rep. Jeff Evangelos (I-Friendship), who was one of the legislators who requested the investigation, asked the committee to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the governor for “possible criminal violations,” including extortion, improper influence and misuse of state funds. The committee did not take up Evangelos’ request. 

But in testimony at the hearing last week, legislators also brought up the governor’s alleged decision to cut funding for the World Acadian Congress in order to force the firing of the organization’s former president, Jason Parent, which the governor vehemently denies. Others argued that the governor violated the state’s Right to Know law by failing to disclose an executive order creating a secret commission to investigate the Maine Human Rights Commission after it refused his request to reopen a religious discrimination case brought by a waitress at Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro. 

It remains to be seen whether there is the political will and the Constitutional merits to warrant further action in response to the governor’s willingness to push the boundaries of executive power to punish those who disagree with him. Bringing up articles of impeachment would be a long shot given the make-up of Maine’s Legislature. Under the Constitution, the Democratic-led House could impeach the governor now with a simple majority. However, if it did, it would be up to the Senate to form a de-facto jury to decide whether the governor should be removed for those “misdemeanors.” If he was given the boot, Senate President Thibodeau would be appointed to take his place, according to the state’s Constitution. Only eight U.S. governors in history have been impeached and removed from office.