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Politics

LePage Advisors Testify They 'Never Said' School Would Lose Funding in Eves' Hire

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature's Government Oversight Committee heard sworn testimony Thursday from senior staffers of the LePage administration, who were grilled about their roles in a controversy involving Gov. Paul LePage's threat to withhold state funding from a nonprofit charter school, because it had hired Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves as its next president.

The recollections of the participants were at times distinctly different.

LePage's senior policy advisor Aaron Chadbourne and former acting Education Commissioner Tom Desjardin told lawmakers that they never made any explicit threats to Good Will-Hinckley officials that state funding was in jeopardy over the hiring of Eves.

Committee member Anne Marie Mastraccio, a Democratic representative from Sanford, pressed Chadbourne on his testimony.

"If you didn't have anything that you knew could be held over them," she says, "what was the point of the whole conversation?"

"Again, representative, I don't engage in the type of thing where I hold something over someone," Chadbourne says. "If that's something that you do, that a decision for you to make."

And Desjardin says despite the governor's public comments that he didn't want the $530,000 payment going to the school, he did not tell Good Will-Hinckley board chair Jack Moore that the money was in jeopardy.

"I never said to him this is going to lead to a loss of the money," he says. "And I wouldn't have because even after the governor said 'I don't want then to get the money,' I've, on many occasions, have seen the governor a week or two later say, 'Well, new information, things have changed, fine, go ahead and send the money.'"

Both Chadbourne and the governor's chief legal counsel, Cynthia Montgomery, were subpoenaed by the committee. Desjardin appeared voluntarily.

The proceedings were interrupted during Montgomery's testimony, who asserted attorney-client privilege. After a rare executive session to discuss the legal nuances, Montgomery returned and continued answering questions.

Rich Abramson, the school's acting president at the time the controversy, testified that LePage had made clear to him his feelings about the hiring of Eves.

"There were a few profanity words that used in describing the speaker and the speaker's work that I am not going to share," he says.

And Greg Powell, chairman of the board for the Harold Alfond Foundation, told the panel that LePage made clear to him that state funding for Good Will-Hinckley was in jeopardy. But Powell says while he expressed concerns to the school about that danger, he never threatened to pull the foundation's funding,

"We had never concluded that we were going to pull funding, we never intended to communicate that," he says. "We hadn't even had a meeting to talk about the circumstances to decide what we were going to do."

But the threat of losing Alfond Foundation money is exactly what the school's board has said prompted them to ultimately withdraw their job offer to Eves.

The committee meets next on Dec. 3 to discuss their findings and any next steps they may take in the matter.