AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative ethics committee on Tuesday found that an Old Town lawmaker engaged in “disrespectful behavior unbecoming to a state representative,” but did not use his position to influence law enforcement officers during a fireworks bust at his camp on July 4.
Rep. Richard Blanchard, D-Old Town, had been accused of making threatening statements and poking an officer in the chest during a raucous confrontation with fire marshals and a game warden investigating an illegal fireworks display at his camp on Cold Stream Pond in Enfield.
After the committee’s decision, Blanchard, 72, said he was hoping to put the issue behind him.
“I am basically very pleased with their decisions, and I will abide by them,” he said.
The House Ethics Committee unanimously approved the findings Tuesday afternoon after hearing deeply divergent accounts of the incident.
Two fire marshals reiterated statements that Blanchard repeatedly said he was a state legislator and made threatening or ominous statements. Senior investigator Scott Richardson also claimed that Blanchard poked him in the chest during a situation he described as “very tense.”
“I don’t know if he was trying to intimidate me, but he was definitely letting us know he was a state representative,” Richardson told the committee. “He said at least twice that I was making my last mistake.”
Investigator Edward Hastings with the Fire Marshal’s Office said he heard Blanchard identify himself as a state lawmaker at least five times, including when the officers first docked at the camp. Sgt. Ronald Dunham with the Maine Warden Service said he did not hear Blanchard refer to himself as a lawmaker but did hear statements about the officers making a “big mistake.”
But several of Blanchard’s children, his wife as well as Blanchard himself painted a far different picture of the events that night.
While acknowledging the crowd had been disrespectful, members of the family said Blanchard wasn’t even close to the dock when the officers arrived by boat.
They also rebutted statements by Dunham that Blanchard was “visibly intoxicated.” Although alcohol was present, no one at the party was drunk, they claimed.
“My reputation is forever ruined and I don’t think that there is any way that I can ever repair it,” an emotional Blanchard said.
Instead, the family accused the officers of sparking the crowd’s fury by badgering Blanchard’s 15-year-old grandson, who had been spotted carrying fireworks. Blanchard ultimately paid a $70 fine for illegally possessing fireworks.
“I don’t believe they acted professionally at all,” Blanchard’s daughter Mary Ellen Lane said of the officers. “I believe they used intimidation tactics on a 15-year-old kid and brought him to tears almost.”
No one on Tuesday disputed that the scene at the camp was unruly and confrontational as 40 to 50 people watched, taunted and jeered the officers.
Dunham described the situation as one of the closest to a riot he has seen in his 14 years with the warden service.
But the lawmakers struggled with the numerous inconsistencies between the two sides. Some legislators seemed to put heavy stock in the written accounts by Richardson, a 27-year veteran officer. But others said they did not believe there was enough evidence to prove Blanchard violated the House’s ethics rules.
“I’m not at all convinced those statements were made,” Rep. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, said of the most threatening statements attributed to Blanchard by the officers.
All sides also engaged in their share of media bashing. Blanchard repeatedly accused the media of only relaying one side of the story.
In fact, Blanchard and his daughter, Wendy Coyne, were both interviewed in the first press account of the incident, published in the Bangor Daily News several days after July 4. Blanchard also was contacted for reaction in subsequent articles until he released a statement that he would no longer comment on the issue due to the pending ethics investigation.
Several lawmakers also questioned how the investigators’ reports made it into the hands of the press.
The BDN and other media outlets obtained the reports from the Department of Public Safety through Maine’s Freedom of Access Law.
It was evident from discussion among committee members that there was disagreement over how to respond to the allegations against Blanchard. No one spoke in favor of expulsion from the Legislature or censure, which would have required Blanchard to make a formal apology to the House. Several committee members briefly argued for a formal reprimand.
In the end, lawmakers composed a letter saying that Blanchard’s behavior — while not necessarily in violation of House rules — was inappropriate. The letter does not, however, state which behavior was inappropriate or go into any specifics.
“The committee did find, however, there to be sufficient evidence that Representative Blanchard engaged in disrespectful behavior unbecoming to a state representative,” states a draft copy of the letter.
The letter will be sent to House Speaker Hannah Pingree and incorporated into the record of the full House during the body’s next meeting.