LePage changes his story why he took down the DOL mural on national news
BY RAMONA DU HOUX
September 29th, 2011
Governor LePage is in the news again about his latest comments concerning his actions which removed the labor mural from the Department of Labor in Augusta. LePage changed his story about why he had the mural taken down during an appearance on an NBC Education Summit.
This is yet another explanation in a long series where he attempts to excuse his actions. Initially he said that the mural was removed because of an “anonymous letter,” then it was too “one sided” apparently favoring labor at the expense of business interests. Now seven months later he insists it was because federal funding was used inappropriately.
The funding came from Reed Act funds which the state received during the time when the DOL consolidated and moved offices under one roof in 2008, under Governor John Baldacci. The DOL consolidation has saved the state of Maine revenues and improved services.
LePage insisted that his decision to remove the mural last spring from the Maine Department of Labor had nothing to do with it being pro-labor when he was interviewed by NBC’s Brian Williams. LePage asserted that the money came from a fund dedicated to providing benefits to unemployed workers.
“They robbed that account to build a mural,” asserted LePage. “Until they pay for it, it stays hidden.”
Reed Act funds are federal dollars generally used for either administrative purposes of for unemployment benefits.
“The department used federal dollars earmarked for administrative costs when we commissioned the mural for our new headquarters,” said Laura Fortman who was commissioner of the DOL during the time Judy Taylor’s mural was purchased. “Nobody lost any benefits to which they were entitled. There has never been any question of the appropriateness of the expenditure.”
The U.S. Department of Labor signed off on the purchase. In fact they wrote a letter to LePage last spring demanding it be put back up, or return the funds to the federal government. A senior Labor Department official said Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to remove the art work from state offices does not comply with terms of a federal grant that paid for 63 percent of the cost of artwork.
The official request for reimbursement came in a letter to state labor officials from Gay Gilbert, administrator of the U.S. Labor Department’s office of unemployment insurance.
The LePage administration must return 63 percent of the current fair market value of the mural, which would now be higher than the $60,000 it cost to create it, or “Alternatively, the state could again display the mural in its headquarters or in another state employment security building,” the letter said.
Part of the mural’s federal funding, came with the understanding that the mural would be displayed at administrative offices of Maine’s Department of Labor. When LePage removed the mural he broke that contractual understanding by violating the terms of the grant.
LePage’s latest explanation also differs from the arguments of state attorneys who are defending LePage’s decision against a lawsuit alleging that the mural’s removal violated the First Amendment protection of free speech. Council defending LePage’s actions in court never argued that the funding for the mural was a reason behind the decision.
“The Governor has had every opportunity to take the high road, admit he made a mistake and end Maine’s mural embarrassment. Instead of making new excuses and spreading disinformation, he should restore the mural to its proper place,” said Maine AFL-CIO Executive Director, Matt Schlobohm.
The 36-foot-long, 11-panel mural depicts national labor history that happened in Maine, including a shoe worker strike in Lewiston, Rosie the Riveter at Bath Iron Works, Francis Perkins, who summered in Maine, and striking papermakers in Jay.
“The Governor’s decision to remove the mural disrespects generations of hardworking Maine people and erases their history,” said Schlobohm. “It is also part of his divisive, anti-worker agenda which has included rolling back child labor laws, attacking collective bargaining rights and undermining the retirement security of retired teachers and seniors.”
A group of Maine residents in April filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking to restore the mural to its original location, because their suit says, its removal violated the artist’s First Amendment rights.
Federal Justice John Woodcock Jr., is expected to hear oral arguments next month before deciding whether case should go to trail.
The Governor’s comments can be seen here (scroll to 21 minutes):