AUGUSTA, Maine - The Maine Legislature's government watchdog panel has authorized investigators to begin a probe into allegations that Gov. Paul lePage abused his power in pressuring a Maine charter school to take a job away from a political adversary.
Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves claims the Good Will-Hinckley school fired him from his position as president after LePage threatened to halt the transfer a half-million dollars in state funds to the school.
Maine lawmakers have unanimously authorized the Office on Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to "follow the money" in the Good Will-Hinckley case. Democratic Sen. Chris Johnson, of Somerville, a member of the Government Oversight Committee, told OPEGA Director Beth Ashcroft that he supports a preliminary investigation into the state Department of Education's handling of the discretionary funds.
"I think that what you're looking at here, and where that leads you, is an appropriate way to begin this investigation," Johnson said.
As the Legislature winds down this week, passions have arisen over the Hinckley school appropriation. Hinckley recently hired Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves as its president over the objections of LePage, who says Eves is not qualified. LePage says he sees nothing wrong with threatening to halt more than a half-million dollar state transfer to the school unless its board changed its mind about Eves.
Fearing the loss of the state payment, the board capitulated and fired Eves, a move that prompted several lawmakers to request an investigation into how the matter was handled. Some lawmakers have even discussed the possibility of initiating impeachment proceedings against LePage for allegedly abusing his power to punish a political adversary.
But OPEGA Director Beth Ashcroft says that the investigation would first look into the fund involved at the state Education Department and find out what did, or didn't, happen in connection with the private school. "I envision that it would be primarily interviews and review of documents that we would seek to obtain," Ashcroft said.
Depending on what those interviews and documents reveal, lawmakers on the Oversight Committee say it's possible the investigation could be taken to a higher level.
Gov. Paul LePage responded to the decision by saying that lawmakers can do what they like, but that he will not participate in their probe. "They can't investigate me, it's in the Constitution," LePage said.
LePage says he's protected by the separation of powers provisions in the Maine Constitution and that the GOC's scope of authority does not extend to him. But Ashcroft says LePage's office is an agency of the state.
" 'State agency' means each state board, commission, department program, office or institution, educational or otherwise, in this state," Ashcroft said. "That is item number 6 under section 992 definitions. I take that to include the office of the governor."
Members of the GOC are scheduled to meet later this summer for some preliminary updates into the Hinckley school funding dispute.