AUGUSTA — After the drawn-out and difficult effort to oust an embattled sheriff in Oxford County in 2017, state Sen. Lisa Keim is asking colleagues to help figure out a way to “ensure the integrity and accountability” of people who hold elected office.

The Oxford Republican told lawmakers she brought forward a bill because she feels strongly that changes are needed to prevent future scenarios similar to the one surrounding former Sheriff Wayne Gallant.

Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Oxford

Keim told the Legislature’s Committee on State and Local Government that she hoped it would “convene a stakeholder group charged with the responsibility of developing a method of oversight” so that sheriffs could be suspended while their actions are investigated.

In the Gallant case, she said, the sheriff remained in office “for more than 40 days while being investigated, at which time records were destroyed. Though there was blatant evidence of egregious behavior, there was no method of temporary suspension and this person was left in charge of law-keepers throughout Oxford County.”

Gallant resigned in December 2017 after allegations he sexually harassed members of his department arose. There have been claims that documents, hard drives and cellphone records were destroyed in a bid to hinder a probe into his behavior.

Dave Duguay, an Oxford County commissioner, told the committee that county leaders “have little to no recourse” when they know or suspect illegal activities by a fellow elected official.

In the case of “the shenanigans of a sheriff” in 2017, Duguay said, the County Commission asked the Attorney General’s Office for help.

Former Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant Sun Journal file photo

“They wouldn’t touch it,” he said. “No other state of Maine option was availed.”

Duguay said his understanding, which matches his experience, is that “initiating an investigation of an elected official is nearly improbable” without a revision to Maine’s laws.

Scott Nichols Sr., the sheriff of Franklin County, told the panel this month that the Maine Sheriffs Association unanimously opposes Keim’s proposal.

The law already allows county commissioners who find a sheriff “is not faithfully or efficiently performing any duty” set by law or acting outside his authority, to file a complaint with the governor describing the case in detail and asking for the sheriff’s removal, he said.

In addition, the trustees of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy have the ability to revoke or suspend the certification of a criminal justice executive such as a sheriff, Nichols said.

Keim said the Gallant case “is an outlier,” but it raised questions about whether the state needs more options for dealing with problems involving a sheriff who may have acted improperly.

She said one idea would be to allow commissioners to ask a governor to suspend a sheriff pending a hearing rather than leaving him in office while his actions are probed.

Duguay said perhaps the state could establish “an independent body,” perhaps within the Attorney General’s Office, that would have the authority to investigate allegations of misbehavior by elected officials. The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices could also be assigned the job, he said.

Duguay suggested its findings could be reported confidentially to the individual involved and the speaker of the House, since it has the power to impeach officials.

“I think this needs to be done carefully, lest it becomes a political witch hunt,” Duguay said, “but if well-crafted it should protect an elected official from false charges” as well as dealing with those who don’t deserve to hold office.

The legislative committee hasn’t yet scheduled a work session on Keim’s proposal.

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