The LePage administration deliberately circumvented state transparency laws that require most meetings by elected bodies to be open to the public, according to a court complaint filed Friday by the state Attorney General’s Office.

Three days before an April 25 meeting of the Blue Ribbon Commission to Reform Public Education Funding, an assistant attorney general told Deputy Education Commissioner William Beardsley, who chairs the panel, that the meeting needed to be open to the public under Maine’s Freedom of Access Law, the complaint says.

After receiving that opinion, the staff of the commission changed the description of the meeting from saying the “commission will convene” to calling it a breakfast “reception,” the complaint says. Staff also changed the location from the Governor’s Cabinet Room to the Blaine House, a secure location.

Those who were not invited were turned away at the door.

“The commission held this meeting in deliberate violation of the law,” Attorney General Janet Mills said in a written statement. “The commission intentionally excluded the public and disregarded the law and long-settled public policy. Particularly when it comes to education policy and how we spend millions of dollars of taxpayer money on schools, there should be no secrets. This case is an unusual one that I hope will not be repeated.”

Beardsley was not in the office Friday, Department of Education spokeswoman Anne Gabbianelli said. She declined to comment on the complaint.

LePage administration spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett noted in an email that it is the commission, not the governor, that is named as the defendant. She declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation involving the governor and staff.

The complaint filed in Kennebec District Court includes a summons ordering the commission – but not a specific individual – to appear in court at 8:30 a.m. on July 25.

The Maine Freedom of Access Act requires most elected bodies and those created by the Legislature to hold meetings in public. The law provides for a civil penalty of up to $500 for a knowing or intentional violation.

The complaint appears to be the first of its kind in Maine. An initial review by a researcher at the state’s Legislative Law Library in Augusta did not find another example of an attorney general filing a complaint against the administration of a governor regarding the state’s open meeting laws.

Several lawmakers complained about being turned away from the April 25 meeting. Among those invited were Democratic lawmakers, including Portland Sen. Justin Alfond. Those lawmakers participated in the three-hour meeting, despite their objections to it being closed to the public. After the meeting, they said LePage personally insisted that the meeting be closed to the public.

The AG’s office immediately condemned the meeting as a violation of state law.

LePage raised the specter of being fined Wednesday at a town hall event in Boothbay Harbor. He suggested the Attorney General’s Office would prevail. “They are going to get a fine, so they are going to have to give us the money for the fine because it’s the commission that’s fined, not the individuals. What a waste of time.”

The AG’s office confirmed Thursday that it will take legal action, but didn’t set a time line. LePage has maintained the meeting was an informal “get to know you” session, but the AG’s complaint describes a different scenario.

The law establishing the blue ribbon commission set a May 1 deadline to convene and contained no provision exempting the group from Maine’s FOAA. The complaint says that Beardsley worked closely with LePage staffers, such as senior education policy adviser Aaron Chadbourne, to select the commission members and plan the meeting. Both Beardsley and LePage served on the commission, though the governor later withdrew amid criticism.

The complaint says Beardsley wrote LePage around April 15, proposing to “convene the group for its first meeting” in the cabinet room in the State House. An agenda for the three-hour meeting indicated that the group would begin looking at educational issues that it had been charged to study.

Sometime between that letter and April 21, a decision was made to prevent the public from attending, raising concerns of various people, including commission members, the complaint says.

Around April 20, the meeting location was changed to the governor’s residence, the Blaine House, and a media announcement was edited to cast the gathering as a “reception” rather than a formal meeting.

“Although officials changed how they described the meeting, they made no changes to the meeting’s agenda or its scheduled three-hour length, as is reflected in the materials distributed at the meeting,” the complaint says.

The education department consulted with its attorney in the Attorney General’s Office on April 22, the complaint says, and was told the meeting needed to be open to the public. Later that day, Beardsley was personally advised by the AG’s office that the meeting was a public proceeding under the Freedom of Access Act.

But the commission proceeded with plans to keep the meeting private. On April 25, people who were not invited were turned away at the Blaine House door by Chadbourne, the complaint says.

“After the meeting concluded, the governor told his staff that he would rather disband the commission than open future meetings to the public, implying that the alleged informal nature of the first meeting was not the basis for the decision to bar the public,” the complaint concludes.

The Attorney General’s Office is looking to fine the commission $500 for Beardsley’s violation, the complaint says.

The commission was scheduled to meet again on June 6, but rescheduled because of a conflict with the annual Commissioner’s Conference for Superintendents. A note on the state website says the next meeting will be scheduled for “mid-July.”