The long-awaited showdown between the legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) and staff from the executive branch produced, in technical terms, a whole lot of nothing.
They gathered to probe the intervention of Governor Paul LePage in the hiring of House Speaker Mark Eves by the Good Will-Hinckley School. Following alleged threats from the governor regarding the school’s funding, the speaker was un-hired.
The governor’s attorney, Cynthia Montgomery, and education advisor Aaron Chadbourne were subpoenaed to appear, since both had declined earlier requests to testify.
The chairman of the school’s board of directors, Jack Moore, said the possibility of losing funds because of the speaker’s hiring was conveyed by Chadbourne. Under oath, Chadbourne denied having passed along any threats from LePage, adding that “It is not something I ever spoke to him about or said any words about.”
Montgomery also professed to be out of the loop, saying the governor did not consult her on the matter.
It was the governor himself who was clearest. Too bad he wasn’t at the hearing. His reported response on June 30 when asked if he threatened to pull the school’s funding: “Yeah, I did. If I could, I would. Absolutely.”
There were Keystone Cops moments as the situation unfolded. Good Will-Hinckley board chairman Moore received a handwritten note from LePage in which he allegedly made the funding threat himself, calling the speaker a “hack.” That would have been a helpful bit of evidence, but Moore had thrown it away. The subpoenaed Montgomery attempted to claim attorney-client privilege, but she got over it.
Desjardin substantiated his claim that he never passed along the governor’s alleged threats to the school thusly: “I wouldn’t have, because even after the governor said ‘I don’t want them to get the money,’ I’ve, on many occasions, seen the governor a week or two later say, ‘Things have changed, fine, go ahead and send the money.’”
Desjardins was a senior policy advisor to the governor until he was nominated by his boss to be commissioner of education. He was sworn in as acting commissioner in December 2014; it was about a week later that his appointment was disclosed.
He took over from acting Education Commissioner Rachelle Tome, who took over from Education Commissioner Jim Rier, who went on medical leave in November 2014. A relative unknown in education circles, Desjardin’s qualifications were suspect among legislators. Senator Justin Alfond’s reaction? “Thankfully, he will go through the confirmation process … .”
Not so fast. Despite the press release from the chief executive’s office at the time referencing “a confirmation process with the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee and the State Senate,” that never happened. Desjardin served until the next acting commissioner, Bill Beardsley, was hired in October this year.
What’s with all the acting? Well, it avoids the need for the committee hearing and Senate confirmation process. An acting commissioner may serve for six months, according to Maine law, though at least one has served longer. Beardsley became the latest “acting” a day before Desjardin’s six months were up.
It should be noted that once the education community became, as the song goes, accustomed to his face, Desjardin began to grow on them. It was with some regret that they saw him leave the post to become deputy commissioner, a post he held for a short time six months ago in order to qualify him to be acting commissioner.
It seems that Maine law (nuisance!) requires that a temporary commissioner be selected from within the department he or she will head. In order to qualify Beardsley, he was hired as the Education Department’s “director of special projects,” a job in which he served for a matter of hours.
By all reports, he turned in a stellar performance.
We are coming up on a year of piecemeal leadership of the Department of Education, a department with general fund spending of over a billion dollars. That also means a year in which the leadership of this vital department has not been subjected to the normal vetting process for commissioners.
It is quite rare that the Senate refuses to confirm a governor’s cabinet nomination, but hey, if you can avoid going through all that, why not? Beardsley would be wise not to get too comfortable in his office. His may be the next short-term assignment in the Education Department.
We digress. Back to the original subject – the Good Will-Hinckley hearings. To summarize: the governor’s counsel knew nothing about any threats, the governor’s policy advisor ditto, the acting commissioner of education said he never made any threats, and the Harold Alfond Foundation said that it never threatened to pull its funding. The only threat left on the table is the one in the note that Moore threw away.
Despite the complete absence of threats, everyone still seems to feel threatened. And Eves is still out of a job.