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Maine panel has questions about undue influence

Glenn Adams, Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) -- A bipartisan legislative watchdog panel on Friday waded into the back-and-forth of whether Maine unemployment insurance hearing officers have been improperly influenced.

After a 90-minute debate, the Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously to pose questions to two other bodies that are already looking into Maine's unemployment compensation system so it will know whether to launch its own inquiry.

The issue arises following reports that Gov. Paul LePage pressured unemployment hearing officers, who decide unemployment benefit appeals, to decide more cases to favor business.

The Maine Employment Lawyers Association, whose members represent workers in unemployment benefit appeals cases, has asked federal labor officials to look into the claims, which stem from a March luncheon meeting the governor had with several of the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation officials at the governor's mansion.

LePage has rejected assertions he pressured hearing officers, saying he only wants them to scrupulously follow the law.

In the meantime, the governor has appointed a commission to investigate the state's system of paying benefits to jobless workers, with an eye on making sure it provides benefits for workers who are rightly entitled to them.

"This is a difficult thing to get your arms around, but it should be put to bed," said Sen. Edward Youngblood, R-Brewer, a member of the Government Oversight Committee.

Rather than go ahead with its own probe, the oversight panel on Friday directed the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to get more details about the two other investigations so it will know whether further inquiry is needed.

Without naming the governor, the committee wants to know whether the other inquiries are looking into undue influence on unemployment officials, the time frame for their investigations and whether the results can be shared with the committee. The oversight panel wants answers so it can decide what its next step should be.

"This is not a witch hunt, this is a question that has been legitimately raised that we would like to see answered in a prompt fashion so we can move forward," Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, said before the vote.

Some of the other committee members said they were concerned that they were moving too fast as the other reviews are under way. Some expressed doubt the federal officials would be forthcoming about the details of their inquiry. Some questioned whether the Government Oversight Committee should have a role in the review.

"We are a creation of the Legislature, we are a committee of the Legislature, and to me, this is going to be investigating a private gathering at the Blaine House that the governor called. And I am struggling with what I perceive as constitutional issues here with the Legislature investigating the executive," Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, said before the vote. "I have a problem with that."