Maine Campaign Finance Regulator Hides Public Meeting During Investigation Of Anti-Corridor Group
The Maine Ethics Commission on Friday removed the video and livestream of a public proceeding after a commissioner mentioned the name of a person or business entity that the campaign finance regulator is investigating.
The highly unusual move came at the request of Stop the Corridor, a political group that opposes Central Maine Power’s controversial transmission project.
Stop the Corridor is also the subject of an ethics commission investigation to determine if entities working with the anti-corridor group should file as a political action committee and reveal funding sources.
Friday’s meeting was the second in the past week and was called because Stop the Corridor is protesting the commission’s subpoena for records. The majority of both meetings have been held in executive session, a closed-door proceeding that the commission uses to discuss information that it’s agreed to keep confidential in investigations.
In the case of Friday’s meeting, the commission returned from executive session to publicly discuss its next move. According to Ethics Commission director Jonathan Wayne, it was during that discussion that one of the commissioners “inadvertently referred to one of the confidential names.”
Wayne, responding to Maine Public’s inquiry about the decision to suddenly make the public meeting private, said that Stop the Corridor requested that the commission remove the name mentioned from its recording of the open session. Wayne said the commission agreed to make the public meeting private while it consulted with its attorney.
“We are balancing the imperative of Maine’s open meetings law with the direction in law to keep certain investigative information confidential. For time being, the Commission is keeping the video recording of today’s open session on its YouTube channel private, while we evaluate STC’s request,” Wayne said in an email.
Portland Attorney Sig Schutz, a member of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said the ethics commission can redact the confidential information from a recording of the meeting, but it can't keep the entire public proceeding secret.
"Just because there's one piece of non-public information mentioned at the meeting that would not justify shutting down public access to everything else that was discussed at an otherwise public meeting," he said.
Schutz also noted that had Friday’s meeting been held in-person, there would have been no way for the commission to retroactively honor Stop the Corridor’s request to strike anything that was witnessed by meeting attendees, including members of the press.
However, the meeting was held virtually because of pandemic restrictions. The commission’s decision to yank the meeting from public view was the second time in a week that it’s honored a request from an entity its investigating to keep secret something that might have been observed during an in-person meeting.
Last week, the commission agreed to conceal the identity of an attorney representing one of the entities its investigating after the attorney said they preferred to appear only in executive session, not the public proceeding.