The Universal Notebook: No excuse for executive abuse

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It is frustrating and infuriating to read the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability report on Gov. Paul LePage’s threat to withhold Department of Education funding from the Good Will-Hinckley program for at-risk students.

It’s frustrating because it is just a fact-finding investigation, not an indictment, and it’s infuriating because it details just how mean-spirited LePage and his administration can be.

The OPEGA report makes it clear that the LePage administration did in fact threaten to withhold $530,000 from Good Will-Hinckley if it hired Speaker of the House Mark Eves as its new president, and that the Good Will-Hinckley board of trustees knuckled under and backed out of the decision to hire Eves in order salvage the funding.

“On June 5, 2015, the Governor learned that the Speaker of the House had been hired as the new President of GWH. Immediately thereafter, the Governor, the Acting Commissioner and the Governor’s Senior Policy Advisor began communicating to various GWH representatives and stakeholders that the Governor would have trouble supporting, or could not support, GWH with the Speaker there as President,” the report found.

“Those on the receiving end of these communications report that they clearly understood the Governor’s ‘support’ to mean the $530,000 in (Center of Excellence for Art-risk Youth) funding for the coming biennium and that the Governor’s withdrawal of this support was directly linked to GWH’s decision to hire the Speaker.”

Whether you call it blackmail, extortion or just strong-arm politicking, OPEGA also found that, “The Board members we spoke to also understood clearly from the GWH Board Chair that he had been assured that the State funding would be safe if the Speaker was not the President. Consequently, the Board decided to offer the Speaker an opportunity to resign.”

Mark Eves was thus asked to resign before he ever started work. Eves is suing, as well he should. LePage and his staff refused to talk to OPEGA, citing the pending litigation.

Other than sabotaging a rival’s career, LePage’s vendetta against Eves is contemptible because it proves the governor does not care one wit about the students served by Good Will-Hinckley. He was willing to threaten the school’s continued existence simply to punish a political opponent. He even called the Harold Alfond Foundation, a key GWH supporter, to complain about Eves, thus imperiling that funding as well.

LePage supporters argue that the governor’s attack on Eves is just business as usual in Augusta. Sure, governors have been known to throw their weight around from time to time, but bullying, threats and retaliation were not standard operating procedure in Maine state government until LePage was elected. This is not hardball politics, this is hitting below the belt.

Almost daily, Maine people are subjected to new examples of LePage’s malevolence – his veto bender and subsequent Supreme Court ruling that he didn’t understand how vetoes work; holding Land for Maine’s Future funding ransom to his demand to cut more trees on public land; his threat to hand over water quality monitoring to the federal government; his Department of Health and Human Services commissioner blaming the Legislature for the administration’s failures, and his latest salvo in the war on the poor, proposing to restrict access to food stamps.

What LePage’s attack on Eves and Good Will-Hinckley amounts to is a new low in a long pattern of abusive behavior. If allowed to stand, it will mean that LePage and future governors will get the green light to use extortion as an executive tool, threatening the professional careers of anyone they disagree with, getting rid of people who displease them by withholding state funds.

LePage got rid of Mark Eves that way. He got rid of John Fitzsimmons, former president of the Maine Community College System, that way. And there have been reports that he got rid of Jason Parent, president of the World Acadian Congress, that way. (Parent’s crime, it seems, was giving an award to LePage’s political rival, former U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.)

This behavior must be held up for what it is: a total abuse of executive power.

The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee now has the OPEGA report in hand and is looking to interview some of the key players before deciding how to proceed. The committee, consisting of six Republicans and six Democrats, needs to keep the investigation and hearing process going until it finds the impeachable illegality at the dark heart of so much unethical behavior by LePage and his minions.

With luck, we will know by year’s end whether LePage is to be impeached. If he is not, I’m not sure he will ever be held to account for the way he has abused his power and the people of Maine.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.