AUGUSTA — State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin did not adequately disclose his business income as required by Maine law, but he shouldn’t be fined for it.
That’s the recommendation of the staff at the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices in response to a complaint filed by the Maine Democratic Party. Democrats in January alleged Poliquin failed to disclose all of his earnings after he was elected treasurer by the Legislature.
In a related matter, Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, says he will ask the Maine Supreme Court to rule on whether Poliquin can continue to serve as treasurer given that his business dealings appear to violate the state Constitution.
Dion will do so using a provision in the Constitution known as “solemn occasion,” which allows the Legislature to ask the court’s advice on an unsettled matter. Solemn occasion has been used roughly a half-dozen times over the last decade, mostly to solve congressional and legislative redistricting disputes, according to the Legislature’s Law Library.
Passage of Dion’s request requires a majority vote of the Republican-controlled House, so its chances of advancing appear slim. However, it appears Democrats are hoping the move will pressure Republicans into putting the question to rest.
Jim Cyr, spokesman for House Speaker Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said the speaker was not ready to comment on the matter, but may do so on Tuesday.
The issue centers on Poliquin’s ownership of Dirigo Holdings LLC, a real estate business that runs the Popham Woods Condominiums in Phippsburg.
Democrats say Poliquin’s involvement with Dirigo Holdings shows that he has violated the Maine Constitution, which prohibits the state treasurer from engaging in commerce while he or she is in office.
Attorney General William Schneider recently issued an advisory opinion saying Poliquin should take steps to insulate himself from the Dirigo Holdings, such as establishing a blind trust.
Until Monday, Poliquin had not publicly responded to the AG opinion except to say that the questions from Dion were politically motivated. On Monday the treasurer issued a short written statement saying he would follow the AG’s advice.
“I have at all times acted in good faith and in a manner that I understood and believed to be consistent with my duties and obligations as State Treasurer,” he wrote. “As stated since Representative Dion’s concerns were first raised, I intend to follow the guidance now provided by the Attorney General and to take any appropriate steps with regard to my personal investments.”
Prior to the AG’s opinion, Poliquin told radio station WGAN 560 that he was too busy to be involved with Dirigo Holdings and that the company was effectively managed by a bookkeeper. However, the AG report noted that Poliquin is “the sole member of and registered agent for Dirigo Holdings LLC.” The report also noted that Poliquin is the sole signatory for the company checkbook.
Poliquin also acknowledged that his appearance last year before the Phippsburg Board of Selectmen advocating for the Beach Club was a mistake.
Poliquin has been mum on whether he’s taken additional steps to build a firewall between himself and Dirigo Holdings.
Dion, in a release issued Monday, said it was incumbent on the Legislature to solve the matter. He said Schneider outlined remedies for Poliquin moving forward, but “failed to provide guidance on the state’s recourse for the violations that have already occurred.”
“It is also unclear if the treasurer can or will be able to ‘disassociate’ himself from his business interests, or what ‘disassociation’ actually entails,” Dion said.
Dion’s request is expected to be taken up in the House on Tuesday.
Meanwhile the Ethics Commission staff report verified most of the Democratic Party’s complaint about Poliquin’s income disclosure statements, which were required by law when he became treasurer. However, staff didn’t recommend the maximum $100 fine because Poliquin had already filed an amended income disclosure before the commission requested it. The commission’s five-member board is expected to vote on the recommendation on Wednesday.
Poliquin responded to the complaint earlier this month. He said he found the disclosure form confusing, leading him to omit three sources of income: Membership dues from his Popham Beach Club, non-cash income from Marshall Mall Associates and income his son received during a summer internship.
Ethics staff said that Poliquin’s original income disclosure reported his “most significant income sources.”
The Ethics Commission complaint and the constitutional matter are two of three controversies involving Poliquin.
The third involves Poliquin’s enrollment of his Georgetown waterfront property in the state’s 40-year-old Tree Growth Tax Program. Property owners enrolled in Tree Growth receive significant property tax breaks for engaging in harvesting activities designed to bolster the state’s forest products industry.
However, a deed restriction on Poliquin’s property appears to prohibit most of those activities. The restriction is enshrined in perpetuity, part of a land swap between the Nature Conservancy and the parcel’s previous owners. The Conservancy told the Sun Journal that annual surveys conducted by the agency showed no evidence that forest management activities generally required by the Tree Growth program had taken place on the treasurer’s property.
Poliquin has declined to answer media inquiries regarding the controversies. During last week’s Capitol for a Day town hall meeting with Gov. Paul LePage, Poliquin attributed the scrutiny to his attempts to change the culture in Augusta.
The outspoken treasurer is under siege by political opponents riled by Poliquin’s repeated use of his office to amplify attacks against former Democratic policies and the Maine State Housing Authority.
When pressed by audience members about whether he was exploiting Tree Growth as a tax shelter, Poliquin said his property was but one of thousands enrolled in the program and that he shouldn’t be singled out.
LePage stepped in to defend the treasurer, saying it was up to towns to enforce the law and that to this point he hadn’t heard any complaints.
Towns are charged with enforcing the Tree Growth law.
The Georgetown Board of Selectmen recently said it would not single out Poliquin. The board said it would have to evaluate all 10 properties in Tree Growth, but made no firm commitment to do so.