AUGUSTA, Maine — The Government Oversight Committee’s investigation of Gov. Paul LePage’s role in forcing Good Will-Hinckley to rescind an employment offer to House Speaker Mark Eves concluded Thursday. That didn’t stop at least two House members’ plans to draft impeachment orders against the governor.
For the most part, the committee supported the findings in the report, which have not been in question since the controversy started this summer: LePage and his staff threatened to end their support for Good Will-Hinckley — which was seen widely as a threat to withhold about $530,000 in discretionary state funding — unless the organization withdrew an employment contract with Eves to be its next president.
While there was little disagreement on that point, a bit of a fight among normally congenial committee members erupted over whether Good Will-Hinckley’s hiring process was fair. Last month, questioning of Bill Brown, an Eves employee who serves on the board of the Maine Academy of Natural Science, a public charter school operated by Good Will-Hinckley, was halted by a majority of the committee who felt Brown’s involvement was outside the scope of the investigation.
Republicans have pointed to Brown’s testimony as evidence that Eves gained an unfair advantage in the hiring process and received information from Brown that allowed him to make a more favorable impression on the Good Will-Hinckley board.
On Thursday, that issue led five Republicans on the committee to object to a portion of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability report that characterized the hiring process as fair.
“I don’t believe this was a fair process that was followed even though they felt they did what was best for the school,” said Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting. “That process was changed in the middle of the game.”
The committee voted 7-5, with Sen. Roger Katz, a Republican from Augusta and co-chairman of the panel, voting with Democrats to accept the report.
With the OPEGA report approved, the last bit of business the committee has left regarding the Hinckley probe is approving a second report that will summarize several hours of sworn testimony to the committee, as well as a range of documentation. That report will be considered at the committee’s next meeting in January.
Meanwhile, a group of House members led by Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, and Rep. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, told reporters that they are pursuing two impeachment orders against LePage. One will focus on the Hinckley issue and the other on what Evangelos called a pattern of LePage abusing his authority as governor with actions ranging from refusing to allow his staff to interact with legislative committees to blocking the sale of voter-approved conservation bonds.
“We have the necessary grounds to believe that the governor is abusing the bounds of his power,” said Evangelos.
An impeachment order requires a majority of support in the House followed by a trial-like investigation in the Senate resulting in two-thirds approval there.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett called the OPEGA review a “witch hunt,” using the term LePage has used in the past.
“It’s time to move on from this kind of political chicanery and get to work for the people of Maine,” said Bennett in a written comment.
Impeachment seems unlikely given the Republican majority in the Senate and some Democrats’ reluctance to take such an unprecedented step when there is little if any evidence that laws were broken.
“Our constituents want us to do something,” said Evangelos. “Even if this results in a special prosecutor or a district attorney to take action, it’s worth it.”