Ethics panel to examine fireworks case

Posted Aug. 10, 2009, at 9:25 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative ethics committee will hear next week from several witnesses rebutting statements that Rep. Richard Blanchard attempted to intimidate officers investigating illegal fireworks at his camp, the lawmaker’s attorney said Monday.

The House Ethics Committee will meet for the first time in eight years next Tuesday to hear testimony into allegations that Blanchard, D-Old Town, abused his position as a lawmaker during the July 4 incident. In addition to the two fire marshals and game warden present that night, the committee also is expected to hear from several guests at Blanchard’s Cold Stream Pond camp.

“Their accounts of what occurred are very different from what the investigators have released to the papers,” Jerry Conley Jr., Blanchard’s attorney, told committee members Monday during a procedural meeting.

Conley is referring to publicized excerpts of official reports from the fire marshals and warden that describe Blanchard as intoxicated and belligerent toward the officers as they attempted to issue a summons for possession of fireworks.

According to the reports, which have been widely published in the media, Blanchard allegedly told the fire marshals on several occasions that he was a state representative and that they were making a mistake by targeting his Independence Day gathering. One of the fire marshals also accuses Blanchard of angrily poking him in the chest, an act that could have resulted in the lawmaker’s arrest.

The committee is charged with evaluating the evidence and listening to witnesses in order to determine whether Blanchard violated legislative code of ethics. Committee chairman Rep. Mark Bryant, D-Windham, stressed on Monday that they would not discuss the fireworks or the citation, which Blanchard already has settled.

“This is not a court proceeding,” Bryant said. “We are not a jury, we are not a judge. It is our charge to investigate … and report to the full House.” The committee could recommend no action be taken or penalties ranging from censure of Blanchard from the full House to his expulsion.

Blanchard deferred comment during Monday’s session to Conley, who suggested that the committee and the public have yet to hear the other side of the story. Conley, a former lawmaker, said there were inconsistencies in the law enforcement officers’ statements and that their witnesses would vigorously dispute some of the alle-gations against Blanchard.

Conley also said that the longtime lawmaker’s reputation has “already been ruined” by the officers’ reports and media coverage, adding that Blanchard has not had the chance to respond to the allegations.

Rep. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, assured both Blanchard and Conley that committee members had not made up their minds before hearing all sides of the issue.

Blanchard had talked to the media, including the Bangor Daily News, on several occasions but has declined comment ever since the officers’ reports became public. In past interviews, Blanchard has apologized for the use of illegal fireworks but has consistently denied attempting to use his political position to his advantage.

“He may have had fireworks, but he didn’t misuse his office or misuse his title,” Conley told reporters after Monday’s meeting.

House Speaker Hannah Pingree requested that the Ethics Committee convene this summer after the officers’ reports were completed and released to the public. Pingree, D-North Haven, specifically asked the committee to investigate the claims that Blanchard “attempted to use his office to receive preferential treatment” from the officers.

This is the first time that the Ethics Committee has met since 2001, when the panel recommended censuring former Rep. John Michael of Auburn for shouting obscenities in the faces of two female lawmakers. The full House concurred, and Michael ultimately apologized on the House floor.

The other House Ethics Committee members in addition to Bryant and Dill are: Rep. Donald Pilon, D-Saco; Rep. Sara Stevens, D-Bangor; Rep. Richard Sykes, R-Harrison; Rep. Kimberley Rosen, R-Bucksport; Rep. Windol Weaver, R-York; and Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville.

The committee will convene at 9 a.m. Aug. 18.

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