Workers comp board director defends staff change

AUGUSTA, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- The head of Maine's Workers Compensation Board faced off with Democrats on the Legislature's Labor and Commerce committee today, over allegations that he re-assigned a staff member to please a paper company. Executive Director Paul Sighinolfi told committee members he did nothing wrong when he reassigned a hearing officer handling cases at New Page Paper in Rumford, and replaced him with a rotation of three other officers. Democrats and union leaders have complained the workers comp director was influenced by political pressure from business, and that the process may now be unfair to injured workers.

Signolfi says he was invited to a meeting in 2011 by New Page, along with several other members of Gov. LePage's Administration. He says that near the end of the meeting, a company manager asked him to look into several workers comp cases being handled by the same hearing examiner. Sighinolf says he looked at the cases and found no problems, but nonetheless decided to take the examiner off New Page cases and assign them to the other three officers instead.

Sighinolfi told the committee he has seen no change in the way New Page cases are treated, and that only three of 11 cases have been appealed.

Sen. John Patrick (D-Rumford), who chairs the committee and is also a union worker at New Page, says he finds the situation "disturbing". He says it looks like the Workers Comp panel is being influenced by business, and that hearing officers may now be worried if they rule in favor of workers. Patrick claims that 10 of 11 New page cases handled by the three officers since the change have been decided in favor of management.

Republicans argue the whole issue is about election year politics. Sen. Andre Cushing (R-Hampden), a member of the Labor and Commerce Committee, said Democrats are looking to use the situation to claim the LePage Administration is again trying to force state agencies to favor business. The Governor was faulted by the U.S. Department of Labor for appearing to pressure unemployment hearing officers to be more "business friendly".

The Legislative committee does not have the authority to take action against Sighinolfi. Sen. Patrick had previously called for the director's resignation. A Democratic press release said committee members will discuss today's hearing and decide what further action to take.


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