Blue Ribbon Commission can’t undo damage of LePage’s actions

On Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Paul LePage announced the co-chairs of his Blue Ribbon Commission on Maine’s unemployment compensation system.

He picked two men who have unimpeachable credentials: George Jabar, an attorney in Waterville and a Kennebec County commissioner, and Daniel Wathen, a former justice on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Both men have excellent reputations and careers marked by public service, and in almost any forum they can hold their own. Six months ago, they would have been perfect to lead a real commission trying to improve unemployment in Maine.

But now, it is simply too late.

Too late for a Blue Ribbon Commission.

Too late to undue the damage that has been done.

Too late to hit the reset button on appropriate process.

Some mistakes have to play out before they can be fixed, and that’s the case with LePage’s questionable interference with the hearing officers who judge appeals on unemployment claims.

As the Sun Journal was the first to report, in March LePage summoned hearing officers at the Department of Labor to a meeting at the Blaine House. The meeting was mandatory, and attendance was taken.

During the meeting, the governor allegedly made it clear that he thought the hearing officers, who adjudicate appeals on unemployment benefits, aren’t doing a good job and too often find in favor of the people who have lost their jobs instead of the employers who fired or laid them off.

Regardless of his intent – and it seems clear that his intent was to put his thumb on the scale for employers – the hearing officers got the message, and at least some of them felt like the lunch meeting was an inappropriate attempt to interfere with their work.

As further reporting by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram has documented, there doesn’t appear to be statistical evidence that supports the governor’s contention.

The paper found that there is “little or no evidence to support the administration’s contention that the system is broken, or that unemployment appeals decisions have been skewed against employers. In fact, the records illustrate that employers consistently win most appeals, and that Maine’s hearing officers perform near the national average.”

And e-mails obtained from the Department of Labor under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act document that employees felt intimidated by the governor and thought that he was trying to skew the outcomes of appeals hearings.

No Blue Ribbon Commission chairs, no matter their personal prestige and integrity, can undo what the governor has already done.

And it seems clear to me that the governor’s intent is not to reform a system that’s broken – evidence shows it’s not broken after all – but instead to deflect attention from his own deeds with a personally appointed cover-up committee.

Not for a moment do I believe that Wathan and Jabar would play such a role intentionally, but there can be no other analysis of the governor’s actions than to realize he’s trying to hide behind the credibility of these esteemed leaders.

The U.S. Department of Labor is looking into the situation around the forced meeting, and I would expect that the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee and the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability will look deeper into the matter as well.

Eventually, Maine’s Attorney General may also become involved.

Under Maine law, it is against the law to privately address any public servant who has or will have an official discretion in a judicial or administrative proceeding any representation, argument or other communication with the intention of influencing that discretion on the basis of considerations other than those authorized by law.

Whether the governor’s actions meet that threshold, I don’t know. It’s a high bar, and we should all be cautious when it comes to accusing someone else of a crime. I’m not willing to go that far without a proper investigation and more evidence.

But I do believe that his actions were ill-considered and inappropriate. They represent a breach of trust and a coordinated effort to tilt the playing field against Mainers who have already lost their jobs.

An attempt at undo influence? I don’t know. Wrong? Absolutely.

No Blue Ribbon Commission, no matter the prestige of its leaders, can fix that.

The tree of this commission is poison, and we should all be wary of any fruit it bears.

For now, the best outcome would be for an independent and thorough review – one that protects the state employees who rightfully fear retribution – and stronger regulations that ensure that everyone can trust that they are being treated fairly by the unemployment system.