Sunday, December 8, 2013
AUGUSTA - The Maine Supreme Judicial Court said Thursday that it will not offer an opinion on whether state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin's private business activities have violated the state constitution.
The court ruled that the matter isn't urgent enough to warrant its consideration.
"No solemn occasion has been presented," the justices wrote. "We respectfully decline to answer any of the three questions presented."
The ruling disappointed Democrats who have been raising questions since January about whether Poliquin, a Republican, violated the constitution when he appeared before the Phippsburg Planning Board in hopes of getting permission to expand his Popham Beach Club.
Led by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, the Democrats wanted the court to interpret a section of the Maine Constitution that prohibits the state treasurer from engaging in outside business while serving the state.
The court's decision not to rule on the heart of the matter wasn't surprising to Dion, who is a lawyer and a former Cumberland County sheriff.
"We were worried (that the three questions) were too vague and were overly broad," he said. "It doesn't take away the fact that we believe the treasurer violated the constitution."
Dion bases his allegation on language in the constitution that says "the Treasurer shall not, during the treasurer's continuance in office, engage in any business of trade or commerce, or as a broker, nor as an agent or factor for any merchant or trader."
Democrats argued that Poliquin clearly violated that section when he appeared before the Phippsburg Planning Board in December, and that he continues to be involved in Dirigo Holdings LLC, the development company for Popham Woods Condominiums.
Poliquin has said it was a mistake to appear before the planning board.
In a brief phone interview Thursday, he said he was pleased with the court's decision but declined to elaborate, saying he preferred to put out a written statement. No written statement had been released to MaineToday Media as of 8 p.m.
Assistant House Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, said he's confident that Poliquin has taken the appropriate steps to distance himself from his business dealings.
Although the House had valid questions about a possible conflict, he said, he felt it was "overkill" to ask the state's highest court to weigh in.
"We all, from time to time, need outside advice," Cushing said. "For the court to weigh in when there are other vehicles was overkill."
Although Poliquin -- one of six Republican candidates for the party's U.S. Senate nomination in June -- has not publicly disclosed the steps he has taken to distance himself from his businesses, Cushing said the treasurer has told him he has followed advice from the attorney general.
Attorney General William Schneider issued guidance to Poliquin in February -- at Dion's request -- saying Poliquin should not actively manage his investments while in office and he should have a third party handle his business dealings while he serves as treasurer.
On Thursday, Dion said, "I haven't heard anything or seen any evidence that would suggest the treasurer has undertaken the steps the AG has outlined."
Initially, Dion submitted seven questions in proposing a House order seeking an opinion from the court. Those questions were rejected by Republicans, who then came up with three questions to send to the justices.
The questions asked whether "mere ownership of business interests or stock" by the treasurer violates the constitution and, if it does, whether Poliquin could continue to serve if he did not involve himself in "day-to-day activities" of the businesses.
Another question asked whether the validity of any actions Poliquin has taken as treasurer would be affected if he had engaged in private business while in office.
The court did not answer any of the questions, ruling that they did not represent "a matter of live gravity or unusual exigency."
Further, the court ruled that the request from the House did not provide evidence of constitutional violations, although a brief filed by Democrats made the argument that Poliquin's appearance before the Phippsburg Planning Board was a violation.
Attorney General Schneider and the Maine Heritage Policy Center filed briefs to argue that no solemn occasion existed.
Legislative orders seeking help from the supreme judicial court are unusual, but not unprecedented. In 2004, the Legislature asked and received guidance from the court when it had questions about a citizen-initiated bill that sought to ask voters to approve a Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
That involved a bill before lawmakers, but the issue this time did not, said House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland.
"The court does not see this issue as a solemn occasion, because it doesn't impact any pending legislation," Nutting said in a prepared statement. "I am glad that this matter has been put to rest."
Dion said he and other Democrats will continue discussing whether they can take any other steps involving Poliquin. In his mind, the questions remain unresolved.
"The current lack of an answer leaves us in the same place where we began," he said.
State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at email@example.com