AUGUSTA – Gov. Paul LePage inserted himself into a state law enforcement proceeding about a religious discrimination case and threatened to go to court if the legal process was not postponed, according to an internal memo.
The governor, however, said he was not interfering, but only trying to make sure there was no “ethical breach” in the case involving an audio recording he had been told was edited.
The postponement of the Moody’s Diner case was denied by the executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission.
LePage said that prompted him to direct an attorney in his office to investigate the case, and he’s also going to appoint a task force by executive order to review the agency’s operation.
The memo from the executive director of the commission, Amy Sneirson, states she received a phone call from the governor just hours before the parties in the case were to meet with the commission to try to settle the case.
The commission is the state agency charged with enforcing Maine’s anti-discrimination laws.
The commission had earlier ruled there were “reasonable grounds” to show that the diner and its co-owner, a devout Presbyterian, had discriminated and retaliated against a waitress because, for example, the co-owner said she was “not following Jesus” while dating his son.
The Feb. 6 conciliation hearing was unsuccessful and the commission will now decide whether it will file a civil suit against Moody’s, the landmark Waldoboro diner founded in 1927.
The Sneirson memo was obtained through the state Freedom of Access Act.
In the memo, Sneirson, who is an attorney, states that at 10:45 a.m. on Feb. 6 she received a call from the governor, who said he had “some folks from Moody’s Diner with him and they were talking about the case.”
He said they had raised some doubts in his mind about whether the commission’s investigating officer was biased.
LePage asked Sneirson to postpone the conciliation scheduled for later that day “so he could issue an executive order to investigate” if there had been “improper action” by the commission’s investigator.
“If we don’t cooperate, the Governor will go to court,” Sneirson stated in the memo.
Sneirson said she told LePage she would be “glad to meet with him to talk about his concerns, but that the upcoming conciliations was a separate matter.”
Minutes later she and her staff attorney called the attorney general’s office, which represents the commission in legal matters. She spoke with Attorney General Janet Mills and Assistant AG Susan Herman, who asked her to make a written record of her conversation with the governor for her file.
The two attorneys general told Sneirson “the Governor had no authority to review the case, that there was no executive action he could take.”
Later that day, Herman told Sneirson she had spoken to the governor’s staff attorney, Cynthia Montgomery, who told her the governor would not pursue an executive action, but asked Montgomery to review the case herself.
Montgomery asked Sneirson to postpone the conciliation session so that she could review the case, but Sneirson told her she was “not inclined to postpone” and, in fact, did not.
A week after the call from the governor, the commission sent his office what Sneirson called a “routine” request to approve funds for the agency: about $4,000 that was to be used to hire a fill-in, temporary employee. She said on the following Monday, she was informed by the governor’s office that he was not going to sign the request, but he gave no reason.
In her nearly three years at the commission, Sneirson said she cannot recall any such financial requests being denied.
LePage, in an interview in his office on Tuesday, said the representatives he met with from the diner told him the commission’s investigator edited a tape recording made by the waitress. LePage said the commissioners got only a “sound bite,” not the whole tape.
(The commission investigator’s report includes a one page transcript it states is “from the recording.”)
“I said, ‘That sounds strange to me,’ so I called over there,” Lepage said.
He denied he was trying to interfere in an agency case where there was already a ruling.
“The people of Maine are my job, and if somebody is trying to do something behind the scenes and sneaky, I would try to look into it,” he said.
LePage said he has held up the commission’s financial request and won’t approve it until his staff attorney gets back to him “to make sure everything is above board. As soon as I get that, yea or nay, if it’s yea, the financial order will be signed immediately; if it’s nay, it will never be signed until we get to the bottom of this.”
Sneirson said her investigator “did an excellent job and I don’t believe she did anything improper. … I stand by her fully.”
The Moody’s case began in January 2014, when the waitress, Allina Diaz, filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission. Commission investigator Michele Dion’s subsequent 14-page report detailed Diaz’s accusations and the responses of Moody co-owner, Dan Beck.
The case revolved mostly around Beck, a devout Presbyterian who was upset that his son was dating and living with Diaz, who was not religious.
For example, Diaz said Beck told her that she and his son were “not following Jesus.” He asked Diaz, who has worked at Moody’s since 2002, and his son to find someplace else to work “because of their destructive lifestyle and not taking a path to Jesus.”
Beck told the investigator that if Diaz “had not been in a romantic relationship with (his) son, there would be no issue” and that he “took no action” against Diaz on a religious basis.
After a public hearing last November, the commission ruled there were “reasonable grounds” to find the owner of the popular diner had discriminated against Diaz.
The five-member commission – including three appointed by LePage – voted unanimously that Beck and the restaurant had created a “hostile work environment” based on religion; had discriminated against Diaz on a religious basis; and had retaliated against her through working conditions because she had filed a complaint with the commission.
The Moody’s incident is reminiscent of LePage involving himself in another agency that responds to employer-employee disputes.
In 2013, the Lewiston Sun Journal reported that at a meeting with state Department of Labor hearing officers, LePage said employers were not getting a fair shake and the hearing officers were ruling too often for employees.
A subsequent U.S. Department of labor examination found officials in LePage’s administration may have inappropriately used their positions to influence the unemployment claims appeals process, according to the Bangor Daily News.
The paper also reported LePage’s response: “The U.S. Department of Labor review found no evidence of wrong-doing, but uses conjecture and supposition to come to a conclusion that has no basis in fact.”
Gov. Paul LePage at a Brunswick press conference on March 10, 2014.