Maine Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, listens at the State House in Augusta in August 2019. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

No one spoke against legislation on Monday that would bring more oversight to elected county sheriffs, signaling a shift in opinion since a similar bill was discussed in 2019.

This time the Maine Sheriffs’ Association is supporting the bill sponsored by Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield. LD 375 would create a way for sheriffs to be placed on administrative leave when suspected of improper, unethical or criminal behavior. It comes more than three years after former Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant remained in office while under investigation both internally and by the FBI, allowing him to allegedly destroy records.

“It is past time that Maine have a system of greater accountability for the important and powerful position of county sheriff. As a county’s leading law enforcement officer and the people’s chosen protector, a county sheriff holds a position of high esteem. This position is also one of significant centralized power in one person, with equal potential for abuse,” Keim testified Monday.

Currently, the Maine Constitution only allows a governor to remove a sheriff. But there is no legal mechanism for the governor, or anyone else, to put a sheriff on leave during a personnel or criminal investigation. Meanwhile, it is standard procedure for law enforcement agencies to place rank-and-file officers on leave while they are under investigation for misconduct.

As currently drafted, the bill proposes to have the courts act as an intermediary in deciding whether a sheriff should be placed on administrative leave, before sending the matter on to the governor.

The courts would add “an important layer of protection against political influence,” Keim said.

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While no one opposed the bill during public testimony Monday, lawmakers and others pointed to the need for possible changes and clarifications to it.

Some questioned how the Maine Legislature has the legal ability to change the oversight of sheriffs when it’s the Maine Constitution that outlines their removal. And they said it’s not clear whether the courts are needed at all to make a decision about a sheriff’s future before sending the matter to the governor for a final determination.

“This bill purports to change the Constitution by removing the authority of the governor to receive complaints and granting that authority to the superior court. The bill, however, does not allow or require the superior court to make a finding on the merits of the matter, but instead the court is supposed to forward the case back to the governor. As drafted it is unclear what role the superior court would have in this type of proceeding, and the need for the court to be involved is also not clear,” said Julie Finn, speaking on behalf of the Maine judiciary.

Two years ago, Keim proposed a different version of the bill — that did not require a court hearing before a sheriff could be placed on leave — after Gallant, the former Oxford County sheriff, was allowed to continue working while under investigation.

He resigned in 2017 after the Oxford County commissioners found he had sent explicit photos of himself to his own officers and others, asked them for indecent photos in return and solicited them for sex. Gallant has not been charged with a crime.

The Maine Sheriffs’ Association opposed Keim’s first bill, which died in May 2019.

On Monday, however, Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton, who is now the president of the sheriffs’ association, spoke in favor of the legislation, which his association helped draft.

“Maine sheriffs and Sen. Keim have the same objective in mind: to create a mechanism in which a county sheriff’s actions, if objectionable, can be sent for an immediate judicial review,” Morton said. “While the undeniable truth is that the overwhelming majority of sheriffs are men and women of integrity, we must hold accountable those who misstep. Maine deserves better, and those sheriffs who uphold their duties honorably deserve better.”

He said having the courts help in the decision-making process was “a crucial part” of the shift in opinion on the bill.

At the end of 2020, the Bangor Daily News published an investigative series about the lack of accountability of Maine county law enforcement, including an in-depth look at Gallant’s actions.

It showed the need for Keim’s bill, testified Zachary Heiden, chief counsel for the Maine ACLU.

“The people of Maine, thanks to very determined investigative reporting from the Bangor Daily News, know that people charged with enforcing the law were not themselves following the law, and that that revealed the gap in accountability that I know this piece of legislation aims to fill,” he said.

Read the Lawmen Off Limits stories here. The series was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on issues of sexual...