Attorney General Janet Mills’ office has given Gov. Paul LePage permission to pay a lawyer up to $5,000 to defend him in an open-meeting lawsuit filed by Mills.
The maximum penalty if the Republican governor loses? $500.
The LePage administration’s request to hire Bangor-based municipal lawyer Erik Stumpfel for no more than $5,000 was granted in a Tuesday letter from Deputy Attorney General Susan Herman to Avery Day, the governor’s top in-house lawyer.
It revolves around an April meeting of a state commission on education funding at the Blaine House where staffers barred members of the public from entering. Records first obtained by MPBN from Mills’ office show staffers discussing five days before the meeting that LePage himself wanted “no press” at all.
Executive branch staff wrote that Maine Department of Education head Bill Beardsley suggested allowing select reporters in, but LePage also rejected that. At one point, the messages say he suggested hiring someone to “write up an account” of the meeting.
After concerns were raised by Mills’ office on the day of the meeting, messages between staffers show that LePage invited meeting participants to leave if they were “uncomfortable” and nobody did. Beardsley has since told MPBN that closing the meeting was his mistake and that future meetings will be open.
Mills, a Democrat, immediately called the meeting a violation of Maine law, which requires public notice and access for public proceedings. But it only carries a civil penalty of no more than $500. Because Mills’ office would defend the state in a normal access lawsuit, outside counsel is needed.
LePage noted that maximum fine is $500 at a town hall meeting where he broke the news of Mills’ suit, saying, “Give me a break.” The governor and attorney general have been top foils during their time in office.
Then, Mills’ spokesman called the suit, which is still awaiting an initial hearing in Kennebec County court, “self-explanatory.”