Lawyer: LePage Has 'Absolute Immunity' in Threatening to Withhold School's Money

Apr 13, 2016

A federal judge on Wednesday heard arguments in the lawsuit brought by Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves against Repubilcan Gov. Paul LePage.

Eves sued LePage last year over the governor’s alleged blackmail of the Good Will-Hinckley school, which hired and then fired Eves as its president at the governor’s request. At issue for the judge is whether the lawsuit should be dismissed.

For Eves and his attorney, David Webbert, the case boils down to the governor’s alleged withholding of $1 million in discretionary funding for Good Will-Hinckley, which runs a private school for at-risk youth. Webbert told U.S District Judge George Singal that the record shows that not only did the governor threaten to withhold the money, but he and his education commissioner took steps to pull it back just in case Good Will-Hinckley’s board didn’t go along with his request to get rid of Eves.

Speaking with reporters outside the courthouse, Webbert said the governor’s action was out of bounds.

“I mean you can’t break the constitution even when you have discretion. So you can’t say ‘I won’t give money to organizations that have black leadership or female leadership or Catholic leadership or that have a Democrat because I don’t like Democrats,’” he says. “Those are out of bounds in our democracy and that’s what the courts are there to enforce.”

The governor’s attorney, Patrick Strawbridge, declined to answer reporters’ questions. But in his motion before Judge Singal he said there is “no clearly established” authority that prohibited the governor “from expressing his intention to modify a future budget proposal for political reasons.”

Strawbridge argued that as chief executive, LePage enjoys “absolute immunity” when it comes to deciding “how to spend, when to spend and if to spend” money. And, in this case, he says the funding for Good Will-Hinckley was part of a budget proposal under consideration by the Legislature, so there was essentially no money to withhold.

Webbert disputes that claim.

“If the money wasn’t in the budget then he couldn’t threaten it,” he says. “So, he wanted it in the budget. It was in the budget and the fact that they were starting to pay it out proves that, and I think the defendant is just misstating the record.”

Webbert told the judge that LePage’s actions were made in a “hyperpartisan political environment” in which the governor had declared war on the Democrats. He says it’s his theory that Eves was threatened because he was the leader of the Democrats.

Since his dismissal from the school Eves has not found another job and Webbert says he’s concerned that future employers may be reluctant to hire his client because of the political fallout.

Judge Singal did not indicate when he might have a decision on the motion to dismiss.