AUGUSTA, Maine — Earlier this year, Gov. Paul LePage issued an executive order calling for an independent panel to review the Maine Human Rights Commission, the existence of which was unknown until its revelation by a television news report on Tuesday.
The order was signed April 20, less than a month after the commission had denied LePage’s demand to overturn a ruling in a discrimination case. Amy Sneirson, the executive director of the commission, said she didn’t know about the order until early August.
To date, Sneirson said she’s heard little from the LePage administration about the review panel, other than a request for nominees to serve on it. However, Sneirson did raise questions about whether the review is political retaliation for the commission’s refusal in the earlier case, which involved a complaint lodged against Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro.
“I can’t help but notice that this executive order was signed around the same time that we refused to do what he wanted in a case,” said Sneirson. “I can’t help but see the relationship between those things.”
LePage’s executive order establishing the panel came to light on Tuesday after its existence was revealed by WMTW. All of the governor’s executive orders are usually posted publicly to the governor’s official website.
Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for LePage, took responsibility for not posting the executive order when it was issued. She said in an email Tuesday that it was an oversight on her part, and not because there was an effort to keep the order confidential.
The order calls for the creation of a seven-member panel to explore what LePage says is a perception in the business community that the human rights commission is overly burdensome and prejudiced in favor of complainants. It calls for a report and recommendations by Nov. 1.
“The MHRC, through its agents, has upheld a finding of reasonable grounds upon which to find discrimination in at least one case where it had actual knowledge that the evidence it relied on and considered ‘critical’ to the investigation was incomplete and inaccurate,” the order states, in part.
Sneirson maintained that she has neither seen nor heard evidence that the business community sees the commission as unfair.
“In any given year, 80 or 90 percent of the complaints are resolved in favor of the person being pursued,” said Sneirson, who said only 225 of more than 750 complaints in fiscal year 2015 made it to the point of an investigator writing a full report. Those reports are the basis for more in-depth probes by the full commission.
On March 23, the commission had denied a request from LePage to reconsider a November 2014 decision in which it ruled in favor of a waitress who filed a religious discrimination complaint against Moody’s Diner.
LePage called on the commission to listen to an entire audio recording — as opposed to the segments that were examined by the commission — but the commission responded that neither party entered the full recording into evidence during original deliberations.
LePage responded by refusing to sign a financial order for the commission to move $4,000 from one of its accounts to another, money that was needed to cover a temporary staffing shortage.
That order still has not been issued.
Sneirson said even though the commission learned of LePage’s order in August, they elected not to discuss it publicly.
“Ever since the last time we were talking with the governor’s office about a case, when the governor withheld a financial order, we have sort of been expecting the other shoe to drop,” she said. “I am very aware of the governor’s ability to control our funding. … We’ve not publicized this because it wouldn’t help us carry out our mission.”