Ethics panel to probe illegal-fireworks incident

By Kevin Miller, BDN Staff
Posted July 21, 2009, at 10:08 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislative leaders plan to convene an ethics committee for the first time in eight years to determine whether an Old Town lawmaker attempted to use his position to influence officers investigating illegal fireworks.

House Speaker Hannah Pingree has asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate claims that Rep. Richard Blanchard “attempted to use his office to receive preferential treatment” from the officers during the July 4 incident.

Pingree, D-North Haven, expressed concerns Tuesday about details of official reports alleging that Blanchard repeatedly mentioned that he was a state representative to two fire marshals and a game warden who showed up at his camp. The officers were doing a fireworks sweep on Cold Stream Pond near Enfield on the evening of July 4.

One of the reports released Monday by the Department of Public Safety alleges that Blanchard angrily poked an investigator in the chest and warned that the officers were making a mistake.

Another one of the reports describes Blanchard as “visibly intoxicated” and “verbally abusive” of the fire marshals. Other guests at the Independence Day party also reportedly taunted the officers as they attempted to confiscate the fireworks and issue a summons to Blanchard.

Blanchard, a Democrat serving his third term in the Legislature, has acknowledged identifying himself as a state representative, but he has denied repeatedly mentioning the fact to the officers.

On Tuesday, Blanchard issued a statement saying he respected Pingree’s decision and would “work openly” with the House Ethics Committee. The statement appears to express regret for the illegal use of fireworks but does not specifically mention the other allegations against him.

“On July 4th I allowed fireworks to be set off on my property, which is against the law,” Blanchard said. “I want to apologize to the people of Old Town and Indian Island, to the citizens of Maine and my legislative colleagues for making a bad decision and setting a poor example.

“As a person entrusted by my community to develop Maine law, I should hold myself to a much higher standard — and for failing to meet that standard I’m truly sorry,” he said.

The House Ethics Committee has held hearings only one other time over roughly two decades.

In 2001, the committee recommended censuring Rep. John Michael of Auburn for shouting obscenities in the faces of two female senators after a disagreement about bill referrals to committees. The full House followed suit soon thereafter, and Michael accepted the censure and apologized on the chamber floor.

That’s not to say that no other ethical questions have been raised against lawmakers, however. In 1997, two female lawmakers apparently got into a physical altercation, but the issue was resolved with a formal apology and never was referred to the Ethics Committee.

In 2006, a Republican lawmaker from Winterport, Jeffrey Kaelin, allegedly made sure a police officer knew he was a legislator after he was stopped for drunken driving in Bangor. Kaelin, who disputed that he told the officer he was a legislator, later decided to drop his bid for re-election. That issue also never went to the Ethics Committee.

Kaelin later pleaded guilty to the drunken driving charge, and received a $600 fine and a 90-day license suspension.

Also in 2006, Rep. Thomas Saviello requested that the state’s Ethics Commission — not the House Ethics Committee — look into whether his job with International Paper should disqualify him from serving on a committee that oversees the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The commission ruled in Saviello’s favor on the committee issue but declined to investigate the allegation raised by several environmental groups that Saviello had tried to use his position in the Legislature to influence DEP decisions affecting International Paper.

The House Ethics Committee is made up of four Democrats and four Republicans. It is chaired by Rep. Mark Bryant, D-Windham.

In addition to a censure, the committee could recommend that no action be taken against Blanchard and, on the other extreme, that he be expelled from the Legislature.

Blanchard, who already has paid the fine for possession of fireworks valued at less than $100, said in his statement that he would provide his recollections of the July 4 incident to the committee and would respect its decision.

“Because this matter will be subject to a formal committee review and I want to protect the integrity of that process, this is the last public statement I will make on the issue,” he said.

kmiller@bangordailynews.net

623-0024

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/07/21/politics/ethics-panel-to-probe-illegalfireworks-incident/ printed on September 21, 2014