Aides to Maine Gov. Paul LePage, testifying under oath Thursday, denied delivering or even knowing about explicit threats to withhold funding for a charter school because of the hiring of the governor's political foe.
Senior policy adviser Aaron Chadbourne, one of several people to testify before the Government Oversight Committee, said that LePage wanted school leaders to know he believed House Speaker Mark Eves was unqualified to lead the institution. Chadbourne, interim education deputy chief Tom Desjardin and the governor's top lawyer, Cynthia Montgomery, spoke after the committee required witnesses to testify under oath.
Jack Moore, chairman of the Good Will-Hinckley school, previously told the panel that a threat by the governor to withhold money led the board to rescind a job offer for Eves. Desjardin acknowledged on Thursday that he withheld the school's first-quarter payment, but he characterized it as a budget issue and said he didn't do so on the governor's orders.
Chadbourne said LePage's "jaw dropped" and he was "overwhelmingly puzzled' by the hiring of Eves. However, he said he was never asked to convey a message to the school or to anyone else that the hiring could put funding in jeopardy.
"The governor lacked confidence in the selection process and the selection that was made. That was my unequivocal message," Chadbourne said. "I'm not surprised Mr. Moore interpreted that as a lack of support."
The Government Oversight Committee has been investigating allegations that the governor overstepped his authority in his efforts to get the school to rescind its offer to Eves. The committee will reconvene on Dec. 3 to decide if it will take action.
Eves, who is a Democrat, has said the investigation has made clear that he would be president of the school today if LePage did not threaten to withhold more than $500,000 in funding from it. The Republican governor has characterized the process as a "witch hunt" and criticized a member of his own party, Sen. Roger Katz, for initiating it.
Former Good Will-Hinckley interim president Rich Abramson also testified on Thursday, saying his initial conversation with LePage didn't make it unambiguously clear that funding would be pulled if the Eves hiring went through.
"It was more, 'You're losing my support,'" Abramson said.
He added that he remains confident Eves would be president of Good Will-Hinckley without LePage's interference. He also said the school's search for a new president is still ongoing.
Good Will-Hinckley operates one of the first charter schools - a school for at-risk youth - in Maine. A fact-finding report prepared for the Government Oversight Committee backs up Abramson's statements that LePage let the school's operators know his support was in question because of the Eves hire.
Sarah Vanderwood, a lobbyist who has performed work for the school, said she was under the impression that "the issue of support was directly linked to funding," but it was always "couched as support," as opposed to clearly about money.
Some members of the public have said the controversy about Good Will-Hinckley is reason enough for the state House of Representatives to open impeachment proceedings against LePage. Members of the Government Oversight Committee have said they are investigating to serve the public interest, and impeachment is not within their authority.