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Lawmakers Seek to Punish LePage in Wake of Panel's Findings

AUGUSTA, Maine — A determined cadre of state lawmakers says it will ask the Legislature to hold Gov. Paul LePage accountable for abusing his power — and that may include a call for a vote on impeachment proceedings in the Maine House.

But some fear that tack could undermine the entire legislative session.

Thursday's vote by the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee to endorse the findings of an investigation into LePage's role leading to the firing of House Speaker Mark Eves from a Fairfield charter school is by no means the end of the saga. In fact it could be be just the beginning - and could reach full volume when lawmakers reconvene for the second session on Jan. 6.

"It's a top priority for us, the three members of the House that asked for this investigation to hold the governor accountable," says Democratic state Rep. Ben Chipman of Portland.

He says the governor must answer for using his office to threaten the state funding of private organizations, because he doesn't like a decision they've made.

In the case of the school at Good Will-Hinckley, the investigation found that LePage objected to its hiring of Eves, a political adversary, as its president. And LePage himself has acknowledged that he did threaten to withhold the discretionary funds because he felt that Eves is not qualified.

"Yeah I did, if I could I would, absolutely why wouldn't I?" LePage has said. "Tell me why I wouldn't take taxpayer money to prevent somebody from going into a school and destroy it because his heart's not in doing the right thing for Maine people?"

Eves has taken the governor to court over the loss of his job, and as lawmakers prepare to receive the report from the Government Oversight Committee on the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability investigation into the governor's actions, the talk of consequences is growing louder.

Orders will be filed with House leaders in the opening week calling for range of penalties for LePage that Chipman says could include a reprimand, a broad inquiry into a number of perceived abuses of power or even a vote to impeach the governor and send him to the Maine Senate for a trial.

"We can't speak to which option has more or less votes to pass, I'm not going to speak to what votes there might be for one issue or another, but we're going to bring these options to our colleagues in the House and see what there is support for pursuing and move forward in the most likely way that we can to hold the governor accountable for his behavior," Chipman says.

LePage's opponents have asked Maine Attorney General Janet Mills and Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney to pursue criminal charges of official oppression against the governor, a charge which can be brought against public officials who use their office for personal benefit or to harm another individual.

Independent state Rep. Jeff Evangelos of Friendship says that responsibility ultimately rests with the House under the Maine Constitution.

"That is the oath we took, we took an oath of office to uphold the laws of the state of Maine and there's a clear pattern now that the governor has abused his authority," Evangelos says.

Passions on the issue run high, but Evangelos and Chipman may have a hard time selling the idea of an impeachment proceeding that's likely to be dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Eves is compromised because of his legal proceedings against the governor and would likely have to appoint a substitute such as Democratic Majority Leader Jeff McCabe to serve as speaker pro tempore to preside over such a vote. And McCabe and other Democrats may not be eager to ignite a debate that could drive the parties to opposing corners during the short legislative session, in what is also an election year.

Republican Rep. Deb Sanderson of Chelsea says the Hinckley school case is not an example of an abuse of power, but rather a case of LePage simply saying what others believe — that Eves was not qualified.

"While you may take exception to his comments and there are many times when I take exception to his comments as well but you know at least he has the guts to go out there and say it in front while other people hide behind closed doors and make these comments," Sanderson says.

Even if the calls for penalties against LePage go nowhere in the House, the partisan debate could quickly turn toxic.

"Bringing impeachment against the governor to the House and eventually to the Senate ‚ if it made it that far — is nothing short of a cyanide pill for the entire legislative session," says David Trahan, a former Republican state sneator and the current executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine.

He says important issues, such as getting the governor to release voter-approved Land for Maine's Future bonds, will go nowhere if the parties become polarized in a debate over punishment.