Gov. Paul LePage has shown time and again that he has a dangerously expansive view of the powers of his office. He has shown, in the process, that he has a dangerously loose interpretation of the message voters sent by re-electing him last November.
Now, in reportedly threatening to withhold state funds from a nonprofit organization if it didn’t drop its selection of Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves as its president, LePage has inserted himself and his office into a matter with which he should have no involvement at all. LePage’s actions call out for a thorough investigation into whether the governor broke any laws.
The case is, at best, an example of blatant overreach, bullying and an inappropriate use of influence. At worst, it’s an abuse of power to settle a personal score that violates state statute, common law and the principles of human decency.
It was repulsive enough for LePage earlier this month to insert himself, unsolicited, into the hiring process of a private, nonprofit organization seeking a new president to lead its residential charter school and educational program for children with behavioral health issues.
On June 8, a day before Good Will-Hinckley announced it had chosen Eves as its new president, LePage sent a strongly worded letter to the organization’s board objecting to Eves’ hire, making an issue of his past opposition to charter schools and calling his leadership and conflict resolution skills “deficient.”
What’s even more repulsive is that LePage apparently proceeded to act on his opposition. As Bangor Daily News reporter Christopher Cousins wrote Wednesday, LePage threatened Good Will-Hinckley with the loss of a substantial chunk of its state funding — $530,000 per year, which funds the organization’s residential life program — if it didn’t rescind its contract with Eves. LePage also may have ordered state education officials to stop a routine payment of $100,000 to the charter school, according to the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting.
The funding loss would have a domino effect: It would jeopardize a sizable contribution from the Harold Alfond Foundation, which has pledged up to $5.5 million to Good Will-Hinckley. The inability to make payments on other debt would lead to further damaging consequences. In essence, if LePage made good on his threat, his actions would have endangered the ability of Good Will-Hinckley to survive.
Aside from basic violations of human decency, on what could an investigation into LePage’s actions focus?
— Under state law, it’s a crime to use “improper influence,” defined as “threaten[ing] any harm to a public servant … with the purpose of influencing his action, decision, opinion, recommendation, nomination, vote or other exercise of discretion.” Under the statute, harm includes any financial “disadvantage or injury,” including to “an entity in whose welfare the public servant … is interested.” Could Good Will-Hinckley be that entity? The violation is a Class D crime, which carries a maximum prison sentence of a year or fine of up to $2,000.
— The other law an investigator might explore is “official oppression,” in which a public servant, “acting with the intention to … harm another … knowingly commits an unauthorized act which purports to be an act of his office.” That’s a Class E crime, with a maximum six-month prison sentence or $1,000 fine.
— Eves’ attorney says he’s already pursuing a lawsuit on First Amendment grounds. But Eves could also claim LePage violated the common law principle of tortious influence, the wrongful interference in one’s business or contractual relationships.
While it’s too early to say definitively that LePage committed a criminal act, the questions are too pressing to ignore.
It’s also worth noting LePage has not denied any of these allegations. In a statement his office released Thursday, LePage reaffirmed his opposition to the Eves hire, effectively standing by his involvement in a matter so blatantly outside the scope of his official duties.
“This back-room deal between cronies is exactly the kind of political corruption I came to Augusta to fight against,” LePage said in the statement. “I will not stand for it and neither will the Maine people.”
LePage has it wrong. While he garnered a plurality of the vote last November, that does not mean that Maine people endorse his every action — legal or not. It certainly doesn’t mean the Maine people should stand behind a governor who would put the education of dozens of children and the viability of their school at risk to settle a personal score.