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Claim that LePage 'Blackmailed' School Shocks State Lawmakers

AUGUSTA, Maine - Maine lawmakers are reacting with shock to accusations that Gov. Paul LePage threatened to withhold $500,000 in funding for a charter school unless the organization that runs the school removed Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves as president.

Maine Senate President Michael Thibodeau, a Republican from Winterport, says in a statement issued Thursday morning that he's "very saddened by this situation and shocked by what is being alleged. Nearly all legislators depend on a career outside of the State House to provide for their families.  For that reason, I am deeply concerned about what has happened to Mark Eves and his family.  I am still trying to learn exactly what transpired. Above all, we must ensure that the people of Maine can continue to have faith in their public institutions."

The controversy began in May when Good Will-Hinckley, an organization in Fairfield that serves at-risk kids and includes the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, a charter school, hired Eves as president. His term was to begin July 1. LePage objected to the hiring, and wrote a letter to the board complaining that Eves was a charter school opponent.

Wednesday, Good Will-Hinckley announced that it was rescinding its offer to Eves, saying the organization did not want to become embroiled in political controversy.  

Eves says he was told by the board that LePage threatened to withhold state funds for the charter school unless Good Will-Hinckley fired Eves. The loss of state support would have threatened the loss of another $2 million in private funds for the school, Eves said, forcing the organization to comply with the governor's wishes. Eves said that amounts to "blackmail."

LePage has declined to discuss the accusation of blackmail, telling MPBN News Wednesday that he could not talk about it "because I have been advised by my attorneys to stay away from that. Let him do what he's got to do. He's not the only one that has a right to the First Amendment."

In a statement released Thursday, LePage says he stands by his opposition to Eves' hiring.

"This back-room deal between cronies is exactly the kind of political corruption I came to Augusta to fight against," the governor says. "I will not stand for it and neither will the Maine people. Speaker Eves has been an ardent foe of charter schools for his entire political career, then he turns around and gets hired to run a charter school, whose board is chaired by Eves’ own State House employee, for a cushy job worth about $150,000 in total compensation. To provide half-a-million dollars in taxpayer funding to a charter school that would be headed by Maine’s most vehement anti-charter-school politician is not only the height of hypocrisy, it is absolutely unacceptable."
LePage says the state provides $530,000 annually for the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, run by Good Will-Hinckley. "To have the school run by someone so opposed to charter schools would be very troublesome," he says.

But other Republicans are troubled by Eves' accusations about LePage.  Sen. Tom Saviello, a Wilton Republican, says in a statement that LePage is "taking partisan politics to a new, dark level."

Augusta state Sen. Roger Katz, a Republican, says House Speaker Eves is clearly qualified to lead Good Will-Hinckley.

"This really goes beyond the political - this becomes personal and vindictive," Katz says. "And I often disagree with Mark Eves, but he's a fine and honest man. More importantly, he's a husband and a father of three beautiful kids and he's trying to support his family. Political battles are one thing, but trying to ruin someone is quite another. And this is a sad episode."

Eves' attorney, David Webbert, says he is considering filing a civil rights lawsuit on Eves' behalf.