The Maine Attorney General's Office says the LePage administration is violating state law by refusing to release nearly $5 million the governor's office owes for legal expenses provided to nine state agencies.
The dispute -- like many others in state government lately - could end up in court. But the current conflict comes as Republican Gov. Paul LePage is attempting to advance a slate of bills designed to overhaul Maine's child welfare system.
Officials with the AG's office, including AG Janet Mills, who is running to replace LePage, say the governor's obstinance could hurt the very child welfare system he says he's trying to improve.
The latest battle between LePage and Mills follows a long and familiar pattern.
Mills is a Democrat, LePage is a Republican, and the governor has repeatedly said the state's top law enforcement officer and lawyer is overly partisan, often because she has refused to defend what are arguably the governor's own partisan legal pursuits.
But in May, LePage escalated this years-old battle by informing Mills in a letter that he doesn't like how her office bills his administration for the legal services it does provide.
And on Monday, the AG's Office dragged the simmering billing dispute into public view.
"At the governor's direction, there are nine state agencies that have failed to pay nearly $5 million in legal services," Kirsten Figueroa, AG's office administrative services chief told the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee on Monday.
Figueroa told the committee that the governor was directing state agencies not to reimburse the AG for legal services.
Her testimony came as lawmakers were reviewing five emergency bills submitted by LePage to make changes to the state child welfare system, prompting Republican state Rep. Deb Sanderson, of Chelsea, to question the relevance of the billing dispute.
"This testimony isn't on the merit of these bills," said Sanderson.
But Figueroa went on to explain how the billing conflict is affecting the very child welfare system that the governor says needs an upgrade.
The AGs office assists the state's child welfare office. If a child protection case ends up in court, the state's assistant attorneys general represents the Department of Health and Human Services.
Figeuroa says her office handles between 4,000 and 5,000 cases each year for the roughly 1,800 kids in state custody. And, she says, the governor's refusal to reimburse the AGs office means the agency is running out of money.
"And so the real impact is not being able to support the services that you're talking about improving,” she said. “So there would be step back in the role that the attorney general's office would be able to play, which nobody wants.”
LePage, in letters to the AG's Office, says he wants more transparency in the agency's billing. In May he wrote that he wants time-increment invoices -essentially an hourly breakdown.
He also wrote that the state agencies he controls won't pay their legal bills until the AG's Office provides his preferred method of billing.
But the AG's Office says LePage can't legally withhold payments.
In a letter dated Aug. 24, Jonathan Bolton, the assistant attorney general in the litigation division, told the governor's finance chief that the nonpayment was, quote, "unprecedented," and that the governor's demands were "arbitrary and capricious."
During a campaign event in Portland Tuesday, Attorney General Mills, who is in a four-way race to replace LePage, questioned the governor's fiscal prudence and whether his longstanding grudge against her is undercutting the state's child welfare system, which is under scrutiny following the deaths of two young girls last year.
She also drew a sharp contrast between the new spending that the governor wants for child welfare protection and his refusal to pay for legal services for children in the state's care.
"You know, $21 million to improve child protection is a great idea, but if you're not paying $30,000 a quarter just for basic travel and operational expenses, then it's penny wise, pound foolish," she said.
Mills says the time-increment billing the governor wants is actually more expensive than the type her office currently provides. She also says it's cheaper than the governor's frequent use of a private attorney, Patrick Strawbridge, at taxpayer expense.
"Our legal services amount to about $50 an hour. Compare that with Mr. Strawbridge's hourly rates, probably $250-$350 an hour?” she said. “We're a good deal for the state of Maine. There's no reason not to pay the bill.”
Mills also used the dispute to question whether her primary rival in the gubernatorial race, Republican Shawn Moody, would continue LePage's track record of refusing to execute routine government procedures for political purposes.
Mills stopped short of saying she'll take the governor to court, but her office has already sent a delinquency notice to LePage's finance chief.
A spokesman of for the finance office says the administration will respond to that notice soon.
-- This story was updated at 9:31 a.m. to clarify the legal services provided by the Office of Attorney General.