The Democratic House speaker sued Republican Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday for threatening to withhold funds from a school for at-risk youth to get him removed from the top job there.
Mark Eves said in the federal lawsuit that LePage violated his First Amendment rights by pressuring the school to fire him, causing lost wages, earning power and employment. The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from the governor.
The governor was motivated to blackmail the school by "personal rage, vindictiveness and partisan malice," Eves' attorney, David Webbert, wrote in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.
"LePage's blackmail of the school unfairly and without due process took away the speaker's job that he was counting on to support his wife and three young children," Webbert wrote.
LePage has acknowledged that he threatened to withhold more than $500,000 from Good Will-Hinckley, which would have cost the school an additional $2 million in private funds.
But he has rejected Eves' claims that he blackmailed the school, saying he was acting within his authority and that he was seeking to protect taxpayer dollars because the speaker wasn't qualified to operate the school. He said he opposed Eves' appointment because he'd voted against charter schools in the past.
The governor's spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, decried the "political lawsuit."
"It has no legal merit and is the Democrats' concerted attempt to accomplish what they couldn't at the ballot box inside a courtroom," she said in an emailed statement.
Many lawmakers, including members of LePage's own party, have said that the governor's use of public funds to punish a political opponent crossed a line. Republican Sen. Tom Saviello said LePage took partisan politics to a "new, dark level" and GOP Sen. Roger Katz called his actions "personal, angry and vindictive."
In a similar case, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in 2002 that acting Massachusetts Gov. Jane M. Swift violated the First Amendment rights of the state's Turnpike Board member when she fired him after he voted to postpone a toll increase.
The judge said the board member "has a clearly established constitutional right to vote on public issues important to that board and terminating a board member in retaliation for such a vote violates the First Amendment."