Maine House asks high court to look into Treasurer Poliquin’s business dealings

Bruce Poliquin
Michael C. York
Bruce Poliquin
Posted March 01, 2012, at 11:11 a.m.
Last modified March 01, 2012, at 12:57 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House of Representatives unanimously passed an order Thursday requesting the state’s highest court to issue an opinion on whether Treasurer Bruce Poliquin has violated the state constitution by engaging in commerce while in office.

By a 122-0 vote, lawmakers approved House Order 41, offered by Majority Leader Philip Curtis of Madison, that asks the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to weigh in Poliquin’s situation.

Curtis’ order reads, in part: “If it is determined that the Treasurer of State has engaged in any business of trade or commerce, or as a broker, or as an agent or factor for any merchant or trader, does that finding affect or have an impact on the validity of the actions taken by the Treasurer of State in the performance of his official duties as used in the Constitution of Maine, Article V, Part 3, Section 3?”

Article V, Part 3 Sec. 3 of the Maine Constitution says a constitutional officer cannot engage in commerce while in office. Poliquin has been directly involved in both the Popham Beach Club, a private club in Phippsburg, and Dirigo Holdings LLC, a real estate company.

Assistant Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, said Thursday that it’s the Legislature’s job to protect the public from any inappropriate actions by elected officials or constitutional officers. Maine’s constitutional officers are the state treasurer, secretary of state, attorney general and state auditor, who are chosen by the Legislature.

“The court has an opportunity to provide us with a clear directive and we look forward to them considering this issue and reporting back to the House,” he said.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who submitted a similar but broader House order earlier in the week supported Curtis’ order instead.

About three weeks ago, Maine’s attorney general issued an opinion on Poliquin in response to a formal request from Dion.

William Schneider advised Poliquin to “disassociate” himself from most of his business ventures but did not indicate whether the treasurer violated the constitution. Schneider wrote that the section of the constitution is “general and without limitation,” and has not been challenged in court.

“With respect to the Treasurer, any activities related to the active management of stock or other ownership interests should be handled by third persons in the absence of any authority suggesting that such activities are acceptable when undertaken directly,” Schneider wrote.

“During the Treasurer’s term in office he should take steps to disassociate himself from the active management of any of the entities in which he is invested and any entities in which he is the sole owner or principal or agent.”

Dion said Schneider’s opinion seems to indicate that Poliquin already had erred by lobbying a local planning board on behalf of the Popham Beach Club and by actively marketing his real estate holdings.

“If the attorney general will not hold Mr. Poliquin accountable, the responsibility falls to the Legislature which dictates our duty to seek guidance from the state’s supreme court,” Dion said in a statement earlier this week. “We have evidence that a constitutional officer has violated the constitution. You can’t break the law and simply walk away from it.”

The House order passed Thursday requests that the state supreme court settle the matter definitively. No timeline for a decision was outlined on Thursday but some Democrats were pushing for a quick turnaround.

“We need the court to provide guidance now that we are considering multiple bond proposals, which are part of Mr. Poliquin’s fiduciary duties,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the Democratic lead on the Appropriations Committee. “Mr. Poliquin’s actions may hold these bonds in question.”

The treasurer has not directly addressed questions about the constitutionality of his business dealings, but has said publicly that he believes the scrutiny facing him is politically motivated.

Earlier this week, another matter involving Poliquin was settled by the Maine Ethics Commission.

The Maine Democratic party had filed an ethics complaints alleging that Poliquin violated ethics laws by not disclosing his business dealings. The commission ruled on Wednesday that Poliquin’s original disclosure form from 2010 was substantially compliant but was incomplete. It has now been made complete through an amended filing.

No penalty was recommended.

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