LePage administration threatened to cut funding, report says

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AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Investigators concluded that Gov. Paul LePage's administration threatened to cut funding for a charter school unless it fired House Speaker Mark Eves as its leader, but they were unable to determine whether the governor personally made the threat to school officials, officials said Tuesday.

The fact-finding report prepared for the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee found ample evidence that LePage opposed Eves' hiring, noting that the governor called operators of the charter school for at-risk youth to indicate his "support" was now in question. The acting education commissioner further sent a message by withholding the state's quarterly payment, the report said.

Eves, a Democrat, accused the Republican governor of blackmailing the school's board into firing him by threatening to withhold $530,000 from Good Will-Hinckley, which operates the charter school.

"The basic facts aren't in dispute here. The governor learned that the speaker had been hired as president of Good Will-Hinckley. He didn't like it," said Sen. Roger Katz, committee co-chairman.

Based on the report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the committee will hold a public hearing next month and invite some people to testify before the panel. Katz didn't rule out issuing subpoenas.

The governor's staff declined to participate in the investigation, citing a lawsuit filed by Eves.

LePage, who didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday, said previously that he opposed Eves' hiring because he was unqualified and because he had been a "vocal opponent" of charter schools in the past.

Eves would have become president of the educational institution on July 1. But Good Will-Hinckley Board Chairman Jack Moore said it decided to hire someone else because it didn't want a "political controversy."

The state funding was critical.

Loss of state funding would have cost Good Will-Hinckley another $2 million in private dollars, potentially triggering a cascade of events that could've led to default on a loan for which the 1,000-acre campus was used for collateral.

The report indicated LePage was an early supporter of Good Will-Hinckley and its charter school, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences. He and the Harold Alfond Foundation were pivotal in helping getting Good Will-Hinckley onto sound financial footing after experiencing financial problems.

That may explain why LePage reacted so strongly to the hiring of a political foe to run the operation.

The report indicates the governor immediately sprang to action by getting on the phone with the organization's acting president and meeting with the House GOP caucus.

He also fired off a handwritten note to the chairman of Good Will-Hinckley.

It's unclear whether the governor personally relayed a threat to withhold funding to anyone at the school or the Harold Alfond Foundation or whether he issued a specific edict to withhold quarterly funding, but the actions of school officials and of the administration indicates everyone understood the governor's intentions, Beth Ashcroft, director of the office that completed the report, told the committee.

Moore told investigators that the handwritten note was upbeat but included a passage along the lines of, "I would have trouble supporting Hinckley if you hire such a hack," Ashcroft said.

It's unclear what became of the missive, which was considered personal correspondence that didn't have to be retained under the state Freedom of Access Act, she said.

David Webbert, lawyer for Eves, said the report confirms that the governor threatened to withhold funding and that the process used to hire Eves was fair and impartial. "In short, the OPEGA report confirms that the governor engaged in blackmail to get Speaker Eves fired without cause," Webbert said in a statement.

As for Good Will-Hinckley and its charter school, state funding has been restored for this year and the next year, following the firing of Eves, Ashcroft told lawmakers. The Good Will-Hinckley board has signed an agreement with the state to wean itself from state funding over time.


Follow David Sharp on Twitter at https://twitter.com/David\_Sharp\_AP.

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