When the news first broke of the Blaine House meeting between Gov. LePage and the Unemployment Insurance hearing officers, I suggested that a federal investigation was a possibility.
Because the federal government expects states to carry out their responsibility for this program in a fair and unbiased way.
More broadly, if the governor pressured the officers to change decisions, this would undermine the appeals system and raises issues about executive power.
Our founders created a separate judiciary, meant to be independent from political pressure, whether from the public or elected officials. As Alexander Hamilton put it (quoting French philosopher Montesquieu), “There is no liberty, if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers.” [Source]
Now a lawyer from the Department of Labor, Leticia Sierra, will be interviewing people involved in this meeting.
The decision to send a representative to Augusta suggests that the federal government may have concerns about the adjudication of unemployment hearings in the wake of the controversy, according to a national labor law expert.
It also suggests that recent visits by federal auditors, and a subsequent telephone call between LePage and Seth Harris, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, may not have been as routine as the administration originally stated.
This entire process appears to be unusual, even unprecedented.
Rick McHugh, a national labor law expert and attorney for the National Employment Law Project in Ann Arbor, Mich., said Wednesday that questions about the unemployment appeals process are typically handled by the federal Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration division, which audits unemployment claims.
“I’ve never seen a situation where the solicitor’s office did the investigation directly with the state officials,” said McHugh, who said he has 30 years of labor law experience. “My sense is that because this involves a legal concept — the concept of a fair hearing — and an impartial tribunal, that they’re being very careful.”
He added, “To have the governor personally involved like he was in this meeting, regardless of whether it was friendly banter or outright pressure, that’s unprecedented in my knowledge. Having the governor involved in this kind of thing and having the solicitor involved are both unprecedented in my experience.”
This initial probe — which defenders of the governor had suggested was ridiculous to think might happen — is certainly just one step.
The lawyer conducting the interviews may not wish to investigate further. It’s certainly not known what the attorney will conclude or, if wrongdoing is determined, what will result.
But the fact that the federal government is concerned enough to take this step demonstrates there is enough of concern that warrants investigation.