|8/6/2015 1:35:00 PM|
Eye on Augusta: Eves Files Civil Suit Against LePage Alleging Political Blackmail
". . . Personal rage, vindictiveness, and partisan malice"
by Andy OBrienLast week, House Speaker Mark Eves filed his long-awaited lawsuit in United States District Court against Gov. Paul LePage, alleging that the governor "intentionally broke federal law" by threatening to withhold over $500,000 in public funds to Good Will-Hinckley in order to force the firing of the Democratic leader as the organization's president.
In a written statement, Eves said that LePage acted out of "personal rage, vindictiveness, and partisan malice" in a secret handwritten note to the GW-H board chair threatening retaliation for hiring Eves. The loss of public dollars would have resulted in further loss of $2 million in matching private dollars, effectively forcing the school to close.
"[LePage] was willing to risk the future of hundreds of students to get his way," said Eves in a statement on July 30. "And he was willing to override the careful decision of a private organization concerning who it wanted to be its President. Because of the Governor's threat, the school was forced to fire me without any cause."
The suit alleges that the governor violated Eves' First Amendment rights of free speech, free association and political affiliation in order to punish the House Speaker for his positions on education, energy and taxation. The suit also claims that the governor violated Eves' 14th Amendment rights to be "free from unreasonable government interference in his private employment as well as his right to due process in the termination of his employment contract."
The suit aims to force LePage to withdraw his threat to GW-H and to "cease using his authority to illegally retaliate against Eves or any other Maine legislators or people."
Eves also seeks monetary restitution to compensate for his loss of wages, earning power and other damages. The complaint clarifies that the compensation is being sought from LePage "solely in his individual and personal capacities and not in his official capacity." The job would have paid $120,000 a year and GW-H has agreed to pay Eves a $30,000 settlement for breaching the contract.
On June 9, Good Will-Hinckley announced its unanimous decision to hire Eves after a nine-month nationwide search to replace outgoing GW-H President Glenn Cummings, who is also a former Democratic House Speaker. In a statement, the GW-H board cited Eves' 15 years of experience as a behavioral health counselor working with at-risk children, as well as administrative experience working for behavioral healthcare provider Sweetser and his policy and leadership experience in the Legislature. However, following GW-H's announcement of Eves' hiring, Gov. LePage sent a letter to the institution expressing "serious concerns" about Eves' qualifications due to his opposition to the charter school funding model.
The 125-year-old Fairfield institution opened the charter school Maine Academy of Natural Sciences (MeANS) in 2013, which receives funding from other school districts where its students reside through the state's charter school formula. However, the new state budget, which LePage vetoed and Eves supported, includes a mechanism to fund charter schools through a state pool of money that won't deprive local schools of funding.
LePage wrote that Eves was a "strident charter school opponent" and is "backed by union bosses who consistently put partisan politics over the best interest of Maine students." Describing himself as a "former at-risk youth," LePage said Eves' skills in conflict resolution, leadership, negotiation and reconciliation were "sadly deficient." The governor also accused the board of "unabashed political patronage" in selecting Eves because the House Speaker's staff assistant Bill Brown is on the MeANS board and Democratic Appropriations Committee member Rep. Erik Jorgensen (D-Portland) is a member of the GW-H board. GW-H has stated that both individuals recused themselves from the hiring process and that that the process was "apolitical."
Eves' court complaint notes that GW-H's board chairman Jack Moore is a Republican who has contributed to the campaigns of Republicans Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Bruce Poliquin. The suit alleges that after the announcement of Eves' hiring, the governor then sent a secret message to Moore threatening to withhold funding to the school unless it fired Eves. Moore has since confirmed the existence of the note, but has not produced it.
The suit states that on June 22, "Eves's lawyer communicated with LePage's Chief Counsel and requested that LePage withdraw his threat against the Hinckley School to withhold over $500,000 unless it fired Eves because that threat violated Eves's clearly established First Amendment rights." However, Eves' attorney David Webbert states that LePage's chief legal counsel replied that he refused. The school ended up firing the Speaker without cause on June 24.
For his part, the governor has openly admitted that he forced Eves' firing. In several statements and comments to reporters, LePage has argued that the House Speaker is unqualified not only because he opposed charter schools, but also because he lacks the same education qualifications and experience as previous GW-H presidents Cummings and Richard Abramson. However, as Webbert argues in the complaint, Cummings also opposed charter schools during his term as House Speaker and Abramson vocally supported Eves' hiring.
Eves' lawyer argues that the governor's opposition to Eves stemmed more from political disagreements than concerns about his professional qualifications and cited several previous negative remarks about the House Speaker as evidence.
LePage's Own History of Cronyism
Webbert further argues that the governor's justification for his action "directly contradicted his practice of hiring unqualified political allies." For instance, in 2014, the governor promoted his senior policy advisor Tom Desjardin to the post of education commissioner. Prior to that, Desjardin had been an historian for the Maine Department of Conservation. In 2011, LePage appointed his then-22-year-old daughter Lauren LePage as his assistant for an annual salary of $41,000 plus $15,000 per year in employee benefits. The suit notes that despite the fact that she resided in the Blaine House with her father, she also received a $10,000 housing stipend. In 2012, the governor then hired his brother-in-law, Jody Ledoux, to be the director of Administrative Services for the now-defunct State Planning Office for an annual salary of $68,577.
In 2011, LePage hired Dr. Sheila Pinette as Maine Center for Disease Control director for a salary of $188,000 to oversee 420 employees and a $132 million annual budget. At the time, critics complained that Pinette's only experience was as a self-employed primary care physician with no background in public health policy. The suit alleges that she was politically connected to LePage through his political allies Jennifer Duddy and former Maine Heritage Policy Center Director Tarren Bragdon. In February, Pinette stepped down from the CDC after the Department of Health and Human Services was forced to settle a civil lawsuit for $165,000 with two whistleblowers who accused her and other CDC officials of harassment and shredding public documents. Pinette was later transferred to a newly created job in the department called "chief health officer."
Finally, in 2014 the Department of Health and Human Services announced the appointment of former right-wing activist Sam Adolphsen to the position of deputy commissioner of finance, which oversees the departments's $3.2 billion budget - about 40 percent of the entire state budget. Adolphsen, a 2008 graduate of Husson College, previously worked on the Maine Senate Republican Committee election campaign before he was hired by the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Adolphsen was first hired at DHHS as "director of strategic development," which oversaw the $925,000 contract with notorious right-wing consultant Gary Alexander to produce a study on the state's welfare programs. The contract was eventually dropped when it was revealed that it contained rampant plagiarism, but not before the state had already paid out over $450,000. In 2010, LePage offered Alexander the job of DHHS commissioner, but he reportedly turned it down because it didn't pay enough.
A "Well-Known Pattern" of Abusing Power
Webbert asserts that the governor's alleged blackmail in the Eves case is part of a "well-known pattern of using his powers as governor to bully and intimidate anyone who dares to disagree with him."
In January, the governor threatened to withhold funding to the Maine Community College System to force the resignation of President John Fitzsimmons for not supporting one of the governor's pet projects. Also in January, LePage refused to approve $418,000 in funding to the Attorney General's Office during a feud with AG Janet Mills. In March, he then withheld $4,000 in funding to the Maine Human Rights Commission in retribution for denying the governor's request to reconsider its ruling that Moody's Diner discriminated against a former employee on religious grounds.
Most recently, Democrats have called for an independent probe into allegations that the governor forced the firing of World Acadian Congress President Jason Parent by threatening to withhold $500,000 in state funding to the organization. At least one board member is accusing the governor of retaliating against Parent for presenting the governor's former opponent Democratic Mike Michaud with a World Acadian Congress vanity license plate. The LePage administration vehemently denies the allegations.
In his statement, Eves argues that if LePage is not held personally accountable for his executive abuse of power, then it will set a precedent for future retaliations against other elected representatives who disagree with him.
"Gov. LePage's continuing abuses of power for partisan purposes threaten to destroy the ability of Maine's citizen legislature to serve its vital constitutional function as an independent check on the power of the executive branch," said Eves. "In summary, I bring this suit to seek justice for my own family, and also for every Maine family. I bring this suit to make sure that in the future every Maine citizen, legislator, and private organization will feel safe opposing the Governor's bad policies without fear that the Governor will use the money and power of their government to go after their family and livelihood."
The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment. However, following the announcement of the lawsuit, LePage doubled down on his rhetoric and accused Eves of being "a plant by the unions to destroy charter schools."
"And when the biggest enemy of charter schools starts to run one, I fear that he's going to destroy it purposefully and I just couldn't stand aside," LePage told WGAN radio host Ken Altshuler. "Listen, it's just like one time I stepped in ... when a man was beating his wife. Should I have stepped in? Legally? No, but I did, and I'm not embarrassed about doing it."
When asked about the possibility of impeachment for his actions, LePage replied that if the people don't want him he'll just leave. However, he claimed that out of the state's 1.3 million people only four have written letters asking him to resign.
"I also have about 5,000 people that say don't give up," the governor added. "Not only Maine people, but American people are starving for leaders that are honest and straightforward. It may not be politically correct, but honest. And that's why you're seeing [Republican Presidential candidate] Donald Trump, which like everybody else scares me. But Donald Trump's leading in the polls because he says it the way it is and people are dying for that kind of honesty. Now, is it politically correct? No. Am I politically correct? No, God forbid I ever become."
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