In the summer of 2016, staff for Gov. Paul LePage thought they had won a big concession from Attorney General Janet Mills.
LePage was frustrated by Mills’ refusal to represent his administration in two high profile cases. Months earlier, he had written her a note, saying “you perform your job as a socialist Democrat who also has a law degree.”
LePage accused Mills of mismanaging her budget and made an unprecedented request that her office provide itemized hourly bills, like those from private attorneys. Mills agreed to provide additional information about how the office billed state agencies for its legal work but stopped short of meeting LePage’s full demand.
LePage made his displeasure known in a handwritten note scrawled on a memo from his new legal adviser, Avery Day, who had informed him of Mills’ response.
“Not good enough,” LePage wrote. “The agency commissioners need to sign-off on the legal budget and I want to be sure they are part of setting it up!!! The agency hires the legal services – the agency sets the budget – nothing less!!! If unacceptable to AG – she’s fired!!!”
This year’s race for the Blaine House is the culmination of a decade-long rivalry between two Maine political heavyweights. But it’s also more than that. This one is personal.
While this is the first time their names have been on the same ballot, the enmity between Mills and LePage goes back more than a decade.
Much of their rivalry was public at the time, played out in the media and in courtrooms. Newly surfaced internal records from the LePage administration underscore the intensity of their frequent clashes, with unfiltered, handwritten notes LePage scrawled on official memos showing how deeply personally he took the confrontations.
Over the summer, the Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram sifted through scores of LePage administration records stored at the Maine State Archives, including digital documents and boxes of paperwork, to gain additional insight into the relationship.
LePage and Mills simultaneously occupied the state’s two highest executive offices for a total of six years, during which LePage withheld funding for Mills’ office (and by extension Maine’s district attorneys) and openly accused her of being corrupt, a socialist and a political partisan focused on thwarting his administration’s priorities – whether it was trimming Medicare rolls, denying General Assistance funding for municipalities supporting asylum seekers, or representing the administration in support of controversial immigration policies proposed by former President Trump.
A frustrated LePage, who did not have the legal authority to actually fire an attorney general, floated the idea of changing the state constitution so the attorney general could be chosen by voters or by the governor rather than by the Legislature. He also sought to divert $2 million in funding from the AG’s office to pay for his own lawyers. None of the proposals advanced.
For her part, Mills avoided questions in a recent interview about whether her match-up with LePage feels personal, saying she had put those disputes behind her. During an interview with the Press Herald last week, she said that her job as attorney general was “to uphold the rule of law and that’s what I did.”
When pressed about her experience of being attacked politically while trying to fulfill that role, she answered, not on her own behalf but for her former staff.
“I can say it was frustrating for the more than 100 attorneys in my office who were trying every day to keep children safe in their homes, trying to provide educational opportunity, or trying to collect child support from absent parents, or trying to prosecute homicide cases and domestic violence matters,” said Mills, seated behind a Commander in Chief sign on the desk in her State House office. “It was frustrating for them to read things in the newspaper that were written by my predecessor about the job these good attorneys were doing on behalf of the people of Maine. And that’s it.”
LePage, meanwhile, has not hidden his disapproval of Mills.
Shortly after Mills was elected, LePage announced he was moving to Florida to avoid paying income taxes. But he stressed that he would be watching Mills and would be ready to challenge her in four years if necessary. While some considered it an idle threat, he made good on that promise, reestablishing his Maine residency in an effort to unseat Mills and win a third nonconsecutive term as governor.
John McGough, LePage’s campaign manager, said LePage was not available for an interview Friday.
LePage’s aides responded to questions about the relationship by saying he came out of retirement because of policy differences with Mills and what he believes is best for the state. But McGough, who served as LePage’s chief of staff, also took a direct shot at Mills in a written statement.
“The only thing topping her needlessly partisan and petty record as attorney general is her absolute disastrous tenure as governor,” McGough wrote. “Gov. LePage is willing to come out of retirement to repair the damage she has done to the Great State of Maine.”
THE ROOTS OF A DISPUTE
The tension between LePage and Mills began in 2010, when LePage was elected and Republicans took control of both the House and Senate. Republicans used their legislative majority to quickly replace Mills, a former Democratic legislator who two years earlier had become the state’s first female attorney general. Mills found a home at a prestigious Portland law firm and was installed as the vice chair of the Maine Democratic Party.
In her role as a party leader, Mills headlined a rally opposing LePage’s plan to eliminate same-day voter registration. She also publicly challenged LePage’s authority to call a special session of Legislature shortly before the 2012 elections, which would sweep Democrats back into power. LePage hadn’t disclosed a reason for the session, and Mills said it may not meet the constitutional standard for “extraordinary circumstances.”
When Democrats regained control of the Legislature that year, they reappointed Mills as attorney general. By then, she was marked as a partisan politician, at least in the eyes of LePage.
During the 2014 Democratic convention in Bangor two years later, Mills offered a blistering critique of LePage, saying he’d rather be playing golf in Jamaica than running the state. LePage had drawn criticism from Democrats for taking a weeklong trip to Jamaica while the 2012 legislative session was in its final weeks. Mills also described LePage’s first term accomplishments as “junk governance.”
“Governing is not a game of Candy Crush or Farmville,” Mills said. “It is not played in a sandbox, throwing dirt in people’s faces. It is not done from a golf course in Jamaica.”
LePage went on to win reelection and Republicans won control of the Senate. But Democrats kept a majority in the House and reappointed Mills as attorney general, despite LePage publicly opposing the move and saying her appointment would be crossing “a line in the sand.”
Breaking with tradition, LePage decided to swear Mills and Secretary of State Matt Dunlap into office during a private ceremony, rather than a traditional public ceremony. Dunlap, also a Democrat, had pushed back against LePage’s unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.
Mills brushed off the slight, emphasizing points of agreement.
“While it’s true you probably won’t catch Gov. LePage and me sitting down, sharing a glass of Chardonnay, eating Brie and watching ‘Downton Abbey’ together, you will see my office working with the departments of state government and representing the state in nearly 7,000 separate legal matters,” she said in a prepared statement. “We work together. And for the most part, the interests of my office, the interests of the Maine Legislature and the interests of the administration are well-aligned.”
LePage held the view that the attorney general should represent the governor and defend his administration’s policies, while Mills and others asserted that the AG’s office is more autonomous – that it serves the people of the state and provides legal advice for state government as a whole.
Internal memos show that LePage continued to press his argument that the AG should act as an attorney for the executive branch, even though his own legal adviser told the governor that Mills “is vested with considerable discretion and autonomy.” At the time, Mills had refused to represent his administration in its attempt to trim the Medicaid rolls and give state agencies more flexibility in the rule-making process.
Seeking leverage in 2014, LePage homed in on a $255,000 overrun in the AG’s budget and began refusing to release funds to the AG’s office, saying he would not do so until he was satisfied the overrun was fully explained.
Mills had explained that the overrun was because high caseloads made it impossible for the district attorneys’ offices to meet a mandatory savings target by not filling positions. LePage was not satisfied, pondering in a handwritten note whether he should oversee the budgets for DAs.
The governor would repeatedly return to this issue over the next few years, even though his chief legal adviser, Carlisle McLean, urged him to sign Mills’ financial orders and actually complimented the AG’s office on a particular case.
“I have been very pleased with the work that office has done regarding the Aleah (a 2014 criminal case) case,” McLean wrote in an undated memo to LePage obtained by the Press Herald. “They did an about face in the litigation process that any lawyer would be hesitant to do on behalf of their client. Given the politics involved there and the sensitivity of the case I was thrilled with the service that we received.”
LePage was unmoved.
“I will review and sign when I get the requested analysis of why the AG was in the red at year end. P.” LePage replied in a handwritten note.
LePage also sought unsuccessfully to reallocate $2 million from the AG’s budget to pay for legal services for the executive branch. And he withheld funding to hire AG staff and provide cost of living increases, even though such expenditures were in the approved budget.
Documents from his administration show that his battle with Mills was impeding progress on his stated priorities: prosecuting welfare fraud and protecting children from abuse.
In December 2017, Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, a Republican, wrote to LePage urging him to sign the AG’s financial orders so Mills could fill 10 positions. Anderson said the vacancies were causing a backlog of paperwork for district attorneys, increasing stress and lowering morale.
“We have important work that needs doing and we need to have a smooth process for filling vacancies so we can get it done,” Anderson wrote.
But LePage deflected blame to Mills, who had announced her intent to seek the Democratic nomination for governor that previous summer. He told Anderson that “your quarrel is not with me. … Quite Simply, Attorney General Mills is punishing you because she is mad at me.”
LePage raised the 2014 budget overrun to make his case, suggesting that Mills was corrupt and motivated by political ambition.
“Because of this financial malfeasance, as well as the fact that she refuses to provide an accurate accounting of how she bills agencies, we have serious concerns about what other corrupt practices she may be engaged in,” LePage wrote.
“If the Attorney General is now withholding your financial orders, solely because she is waging a personal political battle against me, then that is exactly the kind of corruption I am talking about,” he continued. “This is the kind of political chicanery that Maine taxpayers find to be outrageous and offensive.”
Several months later, LePage wrote to all of the state district attorneys’ offices, echoing claims made in his letter to Anderson.
“Because Attorney General Mills is running for Governor, she is playing politics by taking enormous liberties with the truth,” LePage wrote. “Attorney General Mills is holding the District Attorneys hostage to get me to sign her financial orders, which would essentially condone her fiscal malfeasance. I will not do that.”
LePage was in his second term and could not run for reelection. But Mills’ candidacy intensified the governor’s hostility toward the AG.
Mills, meanwhile, had some of her sharpest exchanges with LePage’s legal advisers, including Cynthia Montgomery, who was later appointed a district court judge.
In early 2016, Mills wrote to the governor’s office defending the AG’s autonomy as legal adviser to state agencies. At the time, LePage had been hiring his own cadre of lawyers to advise agencies – something Mills said was illegal under state law.
Mills noted only two cases in which she chose not to represent the administration – the effort to trim Medicare rolls and LePage’s battle with municipalities over General Assistance for asylum seekers. She told the administration it could hire people to provide policy and strategic advice, but only under three specific conditions: They couldn’t specifically require a law degree, couldn’t be described as “legal counsel” or as providing “legal advice” and couldn’t be relied on for legal expertise without the AG’s permission.
“Bull. Bull. Crap,” LePage wrote in pen next to each condition. “Partisan – has shown it consistently biased.”
“I hope we can answer with a very strong message that policy is an executive function and would be most happy to get it litigated,” LePage wrote by hand. “This is crap.”
Taking her cue from the governor, Montgomery laid out LePage’s grievances in a letter to Mills describing a complete lack of trust between the executive branch and the Attorney General’s Office. She said “discourtesy” was not the only cause of the “negative dynamic” between the offices. She said LePage’s distrust stemmed from Mills’ “long history of taking strident public stands” against administration policies.
“Faced with what appears to be your resistance, partisanship and downright hostility, it isn’t any wonder that (DHHS) Commissioner (Mary) Mayhew and other commissioners see fit to hire staff educated in law in order to ensure that the information they receive is not tarnished by ideology and politics,” Montgomery wrote.
She later added, “While you can force compliance with the terms of this statute, you cannot force the Executive Branch to trust you, or by extension, the attorneys who report to you.”
Mills replied the following week.
“We are committed to the rule of law; we are not about bending the law to suit the political goals of a particular administration,” Mills wrote. “Each time the administration has rejected our legal advice, however, it has lost.”
Not long after, Montgomery was nominated to be a district court judge. During her confirmation hearing, Montgomery said the tone of her correspondence was the governor’s, not hers. LePage testified on her behalf at the hearing. And the day after she was confirmed, he wrote to Mills.
Addressing her as “Madam Attorney General,” LePage accused Mills of trying to block Montgomery’s nomination to the bench and wrote that it was “outrageous and offensive” for Mills to accuse the administration of breaking the law by hiring its own attorneys.
“You are intimidating good, hard-working employees and abusing your power as Attorney General not for the sake of legal concerns, but for personal retribution and partisan politics,” LePage wrote. “You perform your job as a socialist Democrat who also has a law degree.”
As the calendar rolled into 2017, the disputes would become more public.
Donald Trump had just been elected president. LePage was rumored to be interested in working for the administration and was a vocal supporter, not only of Trump’s campaign but also his early executive orders restricting immigration, which were challenged in court.
Mills, meanwhile, openly opposed Trump’s orders in court. She also was preparing to seek the Democratic nomination for governor. She would announce her campaign that July.
“I am aware you have taken it upon yourself to oppose the President and have filed an amicus curiae brief in the pending litigation purporting to speak for the State of Maine,” LePage wrote in response to Mills opposing Trump’s so-called Muslim travel ban. “I consider this action on your part improper and misleading.”
LePage wanted permission to hire an attorney to file a brief in support of the administration, but Mills told him in a letter that “notwithstanding the misstatements, mischaracterizations and misinformed opinions of your letter of today’s date” that she would consider the request when the timing was right. The court had paused the lawsuit, she said, rendering his request “moot.”
LePage at one point formally challenged Mills’ authority to determine whether the governor can hire outside counsel to litigate cases rejected by the AG. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court sided with Mills. Later, LePage filed a different suit hoping to force the attorney general to pay the legal fees in cases where an outside attorney had been approved, rather than having the funding come from the executive branch. He ultimately lost.
In April 2018, LePage lashed out again in a handwritten note to staff after the assistant attorney generals withdrew from representing the administration in a case.
“They provide half-ass representation and then jump ship,” he wrote. “In no way will the AG represent anyone in the executive branch moving forward. Further, no bill will be paid unless we have time and charges. This is gone far enough.”
The following month, LePage issued a memo to district attorneys’ offices throughout the state, saying “I will not sign any financial orders” from the AG’s office until Mills met his demand to provide detailed legal bills, like private attorneys. He repeated his opinion that Mills was “waging a personal political battle against me” and was “holding the District Attorneys hostage.”
LePage made good on that promise. By August, the Attorney General’s Office issued a notice of default to the state budget agency, saying the administration withheld $4.9 million in payments for legal services rendered since May. The AG’s office described the move as “unprecedented,” “inexplicable” and “illegal.”
Around that same time, LePage had formally called on Mills to take a leave from her role as AG because she was running for governor.
“You should not run your political campaign while also pretending to serve as a full-time Attorney General,” LePage said. “Your political ambitions, no matter how far-fetched, should not come at the expense of the Maine people.”
Mills would go on to win the election in November, earning the most votes for governor in the state’s history. Before her election, the record for the most votes belonged to Paul LePage.
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