By the slimmest of margins, members of the Legislature's nonpartisan Government Oversight Committee voted to endorse an agency probe that concluded Gov. Paul LePage's threat to withhold funding from the Good Will-Hinckley School influenced the school's decision to fire House Speaker Mark Eves as its president.
The 7-5 vote by the Legislature's Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability balanced concerns over LePage's alleged abuse of power against the fairness of the hiring process that gave Eves the job.
The report from the OPEGA did not suggest any wrongdoing by members of the LePage administration, or the governor himself for that matter. But critics point to the governor's threats to withhold funding from various groups and agencies as blazing a dangerous path.
"I worry about the precedent this case sets, if this kind of executive action becomes the new normal," Katz says.
Sen. Roger Katz, of Augusta was the lone Republican on the Government Oversight Committee who sided with Democrats to produce a 7-5 vote endorsing the findings of OPEGA investigators: that the charter school at Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield withdrew a job offer to Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves after LePage threatened to withhold $530,000 in state funds. LePage, who has clashed with Eves over various issues at the State House, claimed Eves was not qualified to hold the job. During an October hearing, Good Will-Hinckley Chairman Jack Moore, told Katz and others that LePage's threat would have cost the school millions more in other lost grants, prompting the decision to rescind its job offer to Eves. Katz says LePage's brand of political intimidation cannot be tolerated.
"Are we entering an era when private institutions will feel the need to give politicians a veto power over their internal hiring decisions," Katz says.
Democrats on the committee quickly fell behind Katz saying that the governor had abused his power too many times and that the OPEGA report accurately captured the sequence of events leading to the hiring and subsequent firing of Eves. Some Democrats said LePage had committed an ethical breach by threatening to defund the school, but state Sen. Chris Johnson of Somerville, says the governor's actions were at odds with the state's best interests.
"That's not the way politics is supposed to work, this is not a fiefdom -- this is representative government," Johnson says.
Five Republicans on 12-member committee substantially agreed with most of the narrative presented by OPEGA investigators, but they refused to endorse a section of the report that found the Good Will-Hinckley board had followed a rigorous and fair hiring process in selecting Eves as its president. They cited the testimony last month of Bill Brown, a top House Democratic staffer who also chairs the charter school's board at Good Will-Hinckley. Republican Rep. Deb Sanderson, of Chelsea, says that while Brown recused himself on the vote to hire Eves, he played a pivotal role in preparing his State House boss for the job interview.
"He himself admitted when I asked did you offer advice or tips to Speaker Eves and he said yes, he coached him on what the school was looking for, his strong points - that is again by his own admission something was not done for the other applicants because - and I quote - 'they didn't ask,'" Sanderson says.
But Thomaston Rep. Chuck Kruger, the Democrat House chair of the oversight committee says Republicans are missing the point.
"It is not about anybody's qualifications for a job - it's about whether or not a threat was made to Good Will-Hinckley," Kruger said.
The committee will meet again next month to decide on the substance of its final report on the matter that will be forwarded to legislative leaders. Majority Democrats in the House are receiving requests from some members to initiative impeachment proceedings against LePage. The governor's office characterized the OPEGA report as "little more than a political witch hunt triggered by overreaching politicians who have a history of leading attacks on the governor."