AUGUSTA — Despite warnings it could escalate partisan squabbles into criminal charges, the House approved a proposal that would make it a felony for some to provide false testimony to legislators.

Initially conceived as a broad ban on anyone providing false testimony, the revised bill adopted by a vote of 76-70 would make it a crime only for lobbyists and executive branch officials to lie to lawmakers.

Its original sponsor, Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, denounced the new version as “a terrible bill.”

Supporters said, though, that requiring people to tell the truth when they testify is a good idea.

“Legislators increasingly rely on lobbyists and expert members of the public to fully understand the technical and often complicated effect a bill will have if passed,” Suzanne Lafreniere, representing the Roman Catholic Diocese in Portland, told legislators in committee.

“In order to make the right decisions that will further the common good, legislators need accurate and true information to properly evaluate each bill,” she said.

Supporters of the revised proposal brushed aside GOP concerns that including executive branch officials along with lobbyists might be used to go after those serving a governor whose party isn’t also in control of the Legislature.

Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, said that in the “heightened politically partisan environment” that’s increasingly taking hold, perjury charges could become a weapon for the Legislature to use against executive branch officials who testify about bills.

He warned that before long, the state may need to add space for all the people who could find perjury charges lodged against them.

“There are times in this body where we try to make a silk purse of a sow’s ear,” Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock, said. “This is one of those times.”

Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said he finds it troubling that legislators who favor the proposal are “going way beyond” what Sirocki’s bill intended.

Now, he said, “this is just a bad bill.”

Sirocki introduced her measure in committee with the explanation that it would “help clarify and enforce the expectation that information provided by anyone, including lobbyists, to the Maine Legislature, in both written and oral testimony, be truthful.”

“I don’t need to tell each of you how important it is that lawmakers base decisions on truthful, accurate information,” she told a legislative panel.

Also in committee, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap weighed in against the proposal.

“I know well enough that misleading testimony is damaging to the integrity of the process,” Dunlap said. “But we also know through experience that this is a process that polices itself.

“People who dissemble, mislead or outright lie don’t last long in Augusta,” he said. “The point here, I believe, is to make sure that committees are getting accurate and truthful information. I think that’s understandable and laudable. But what is truth? What is accurate?”

The proposal wound up heavily revised as legislators pared its initial language to target only lobbyists and lobbyists’ associates. The House added executive branch officials as well.

Before the measure can reach the governor’s desk, the House and Senate need to approve identical bills.


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