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DHHS Chief Subpoenaed By Oversight Committee

Maine Public/file
DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton, then a nominee for the post, at a legislative committee hearing Oct. 19, 2017.

The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously Thursday to subpoena Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Chief Ricker Hamilton after he failed to show up for questioning about his agency's response to an investigation into the state’s child welfare system and the death of two young girls.

The oversight committee and Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability have been grappling with how to assess and improve the state's child welfare system ever since the deaths last winter of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick.

The pending criminal investigation and confidentiality laws have hindered that effort, but last month, Gov. Paul LePage himself assured the panel that his administration would assist lawmakers and make staff available to answer questions – as long as doing so didn't impede the criminal probe.

"This one here is very, very critical," LePage told the panel May 31.

"We're all on the same team," Republican Sen. Roger Katz responded.

"We're all on the same team, yes," said LePage.

That exchange between the Governor and Republican state Sen. Roger Katz, co-chair of the oversight committee, was fresh on the minds of lawmakers Thursday when DHHS Chief Hamilton failed to show up for a work session.

Katz said the governor had promised Hamilton would be available for questions about his agency's report on the child welfare system.

"We took him at his word. And in retrospect, how dumb were we to do that? Because Ricker Hamilton was not here today," Katz said.

Katz said Hamilton's absence makes the committee's work more difficult, and that it wasted time that the committee could have used to help fix what the governor has acknowledged is a flawed system.

"We're all supposed to be on the same team here,” said Katz. “We want to make sure that the system gets fixed so that these terrible tragedies don't happen again. And the department is the repository of the knowledge. We can't make good public policy without their cooperation and help."

Over his seven and half years as governor, LePage has repeatedly denied committees access to his administration's commissioners and staff, saying that too often lawmakers grill his staff and grandstand to score political points.

But Rep. Ann-Marie Mastraccio, the Democratic co-chairwoman of the oversight committee, suggested that the Governor denies access to his officials because tough questions might reveal the administration's mistakes in policy or judgment.

"I mean, what are they trying to hide, if anything? We are all on the same team. We're all here for the same reason. I'm just baffled by why they weren't here today," she said. “Personally, I'm not surprised….and it's just sad that I'm not surprised."

Ultimately, the committee will get a chance to question Hamilton. Because of the subpoena , the DHHS chief will be compelled to show up at its next meeting in July. But whether Hamilton will actually answer any questions at the meeting is unclear.

Late Thursday afternoon Governor LePage released a statement about Commissioner Hamilton's failure to appear at the meeting.

Because of the pending criminal investigation into the deaths of the two Maine children who were allegedly killed after extensive physical abuse, and because of the need for confidentiality in both cases, the Governor said he determined it would be inappropriate for Hamilton to participate in open-ended discussions with lawmakers about Child Protective Services.

But the Governor acknowledged that there is also another reason he didn't want Hamilton to appear.

"Given that this is a matter of significant interest during an election year, we could not risk that GOC legislators would use the hearing to grandstand to score political points," LePage said.

He said his office had previously communicated that the commissioner would be able to answer questions in writing.

Update 5:00 p.m. Originally published 11:40 a.m. 

Susan Sharon contributed to this report.