Paul LePage’s last-minute pardon as governor of a former Republican lawmaker from Dresden for a drug trafficking conviction 35 years ago went against the recommendation of his own board on executive clemency.

In fact, the board didn’t even schedule a public hearing before rejecting the pardon request of Jeffrey Pierce, which makes LePage’s decision even more unusual, said Lenny Sharon, an Auburn attorney who served on the board for 23 years.

“I’ve never seen it happen,” Sharon said.

Other pardons were issued by LePage during his final days in office. It’s possible that some were done in the same manner as Pierce’s, but the governor’s office did not release a list of names. Additionally, the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, which is now in possession of LePage’s records, said pardons are confidential under the Maine Criminal History Record Information Act.

A national pardon expert said that change puts Maine in rare company among states with little to no accountability over pardons.

“You’ve got a problem in Maine,” said Margaret Love, a former Department of Justice pardon attorney who now directs a nonprofit that raises public awareness of the legal restrictions and stigma that often burden convicted people.

Pierce confirmed in a text message Thursday that the three-member Governor’s Board on Executive Clemency rejected his pardon petition at its November meeting. But Pierce said it didn’t matter because the decision was the governor’s alone to make.

“There are a number of recommendations from bureaucrat (sic) boards across the state agencies that this governor didn’t follow,” Pierce wrote.

LEPAGE PARDONED 115 PEOPLE

While it’s true that LePage, or any governor, has almost-absolute power to issue pardons, there is a clearly established process that wasn’t followed in Pierce’s case – likely because there wasn’t enough time before LePage left office and was replaced by Democrat Janet Mills.

That Pierce’s pardon is public is unusual, too.

By law, the names of people who have been pardoned are not a matter of public record, as of last year. However, the pardon granted last week to Pierce, who lost his bid for re-election to the Maine House of Representatives in November, was disclosed in a report by MainePublic this week. He and the governor’s office have since confirmed it.

LePage’s spokeswoman, Julie Rabinowitz, also said in an email that he issued multiple pardons, but did not specify how many or provide names. A spokeswoman for the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, which is in the process of archiving LePage’s records, said he pardoned 115 people during his two terms in office. By comparison, his predecessors, Democrat John Baldacci and independent Angus King, pardoned 141 and 100 people, respectively.

The Portland Press Herald reported in October that Pierce, on at least five occasions from 2001 to 2012, registered deer, turkey and moose using firearms hunting permits issued by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, according to state records.

Pierce was convicted of felony-level drug trafficking charges in 1983 for selling cocaine and marijuana to an undercover state trooper. His criminal record also includes several misdemeanor offenses between 1980 and 2006.

As a convicted felon, Pierce is prohibited from possessing firearms. State law also makes it a crime to fraudulently obtain a firearms hunting permit or to falsify a hunting permit application, which expressly asks if an applicant is a convicted felon. In addition, state law prohibits felons from applying for firearms hunting permits, and the possession of a firearm by a felon is an additional felony-level crime under both state and federal law.

CONVICTION ISN’T ERASED

John MacDonald, a spokesman for the Maine Warden Service, said this week that the agency is investigating whether Pierce committed any violations. Any findings will be sent to the district attorney’s office in Lincoln County, where Pierce lives. That office will decide whether to bring charges.

MacDonald said he wasn’t aware of the pardon until a reporter shared the information, but said he didn’t believe it would have any impact on the warden service investigation.

A pardon doesn’t mean a conviction is erased, only that the crime has been forgiven and any associated penalties are no longer applicable. Maine does not have expungement, like some other states, in which convictions are vacated.

It’s not clear when Pierce submitted a pardon petition, since requests are not a matter of public record either, as of last year. The three-member clemency board does not keep agendas or minutes of its meetings. Pierce did not respond to specific questions.

What is clear is that Pierce’s pardon never made it to the next stage, which is a public hearing.

According to the Maine Department of Corrections website and Sharon, who chaired the board for many years, anyone seeking a pardon must wait at least five years after completing a sentence, including probation. Some crimes, such as drunken driving, are not eligible for pardons. Also, people cannot be pardoned for the sole purpose of regaining firearm rights or removing themselves from the Maine Sex Offender Registry.

Once someone is eligible to receive a pardon, he or she submits a formal petition to the clemency board. The board meets four times a year and considers 80 to 100 petitions at each meeting, Sharon said.

The board collectively decides which petitions demonstrate exceptional circumstances and then moves those cases forward for public hearings.

“What we’re looking for is whether there are roadblocks in a person’s life that could be removed by a pardon,” Sharon said.

Before those hearings happen, though, petitioners are subjected to a background check by the probation division of the state Department of Corrections. Petitioners also are required to place legal notices about their public hearing in a local newspaper for four consecutive weeks before the hearing date. None of that happened in Pierce’s case.

The public hearing notice requirement creates a disconnect in the confidentiality of pardons. When petitioners have a hearing, their name and the offense for which they are seeking pardon are made public. But the final decision about the pardon is not.

LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY

Love, who was a U.S. pardon attorney in the 1990s under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, said that’s a problem.

“I don’t know why anyone in the world would want to make pardons a secret,” she said, “It’s inconsistent with any accountability.”

As part of her nonprofit work, Love maintains a state-by-state comparison of various pardon laws. She said her opinion is that Maine’s pardon process gives far too much authority to a governor and offers far too little accountability for decisions.

According to Maine law, pardons have been confidential for purposes of criminal records since 1979. Last year, the Criminal Law Advisory Commission, which assists lawmakers in routine changes to various criminal statutes, proposed a change to also make confidential all petitions for pardons.

John Pelletier, who chairs the commission, said the idea behind the change was to give people “a clean slate.” He did, however, acknowledge that because people who are granted hearings must purchase legal notices, the system is not 100 percent confidential.

According to the website Mainenotices.com, which archives all public legal notices for the past 18 months, 54 individuals were granted pardon hearings between June 2017 and December 2018. It’s not clear how many of the petitioners were actually pardoned.

There was one high-profile pardon request that LePage rejected – for former Waterville resident Lexius Saint Martin, who was deported to Haiti earlier this year, away from his wife and children, because of an old drug trafficking case.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

Correction: This story was updated at 3 p.m. Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, to correct a misstatement about a recent law change. Last year, state law was changed to make confidential all petitions for pardons. However, whether or not someone has been granted a pardon has been confidential since 1979.

filed under: