Kennebec County Sheriff Randy Liberty is recounting his meeting earlier this year with Gov. Paul LePage, and three members of a group that critics say is tied to a right wing extremist movement on the FBI's watch list.
LePage, meanwhile, denies claims made in press accounts this week that he ever discussed the execution of Democratic leaders, and has challenged the author of a new book from which the story emerged.
Sheriff Randy Liberty says he was contacted earlier this year by Gov. Paul Lepage and asked to come to his office for a meeting. "I drove over and we met in the cabinet meeting room," Liberty says, "and the governor was there with three individuals."
Liberty did not know it at the time, but LePage had called him in for a meeting with members of the Constitutional Coalition, a group that progressive blogger and Democratic activist Mike Tipping says has direct ties with a national movement known as the Sovereign Citizens. The group has been linked with violent acts against public figures in other states, and its members reject taxes, the U.S. currency and perceive the U.S. government as illegitimate.
The first chapter of Tipping's new book, "As Maine Went" details the meeting with what Liberty says seemed like a "fringey" constitutionalist group that believes the county sheriff is the preminent law enforcement agent, superceeding the state police. And Liberty says the group wanted a sheriff to help them deliver their grievances concerning a list of constitutional infringements.
"They wished to have their grievances addressed by the president of the Senate, the speaker of the House and the attorney general," Liberty says. "And when I was there, the governor seemed generous with his time and he listened a lot."
Liberty says he accommodated the group's request, delivering the message to the respective staffs of the three elected leaders, all Democrats. Liberty says he though he'd completed his assignment, but then he heard from the coalition again earlier this year. This time, they wanted Liberty to arrest the the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate and the Maine attorney general on charges that ranged from dereliction of duty to treason.
"I was not certain of my jurisdiction in that environment and so I met with District Attorney Meghan Maloney and she did some research and she met with us regarding that," Liberty says. "They wanted them to be indicted by the the grand jury - the three political figures - and of course that never happened. And that was sort of the end ot if."
Until Jack McCarthy, a co-host on WXME's conservative radio show "The Aroostook Watchmen," announced on the air he had met with LePage about trying Democratic legislative leaders for treason, a conversation that McCarthy says prompted the governor to bring up the reference to "hanging."
"I never opened my mouth and said the word - the governor looked at us and looked at his buddy and said, 'They're talking about hanging them,' " McCarthy said.
LePage responded strongly to press coverage of the story Monday night, contacting the Bangor Daily News - not once, but twice. Mike Tipping says he was advised of the calls and that the governor threatened legal action.
"He did threaten to sue, but he also made a series of claims that were just provably false," Tipping says. "He said he never discussed the arrests or execution of Democratic leaders and it's very clear, both in the audio tapes of them talking about these meetings and also in the documents that his office provided - that that was a constant subject of conversation."
Meanwhile, at LePage for Governor headquarters, campaign spokesman Alex Willette says the storm will pass.
"It kind of seem to be simmering down a little bit," Willette says. "I think it's just a distraction. It's Tipping trying to sell his book, and if I were a liberal who had endorsed Michaud and was trying to sell some books, I'd probably try to get as much shock and awe out there."
But the story has gone national, picked up by MSNBC, and it remains to be seen what the effects might be, if any, in th erace for governor, or in fundraising.
LePage is hoping for support from out-of-state contributors, such as the Republican Governors Association. And University of Maine Farmington Political Science Professor Jim Melcher says it all depends on what happens next.
"I think that's something that certainly his opponents could well use against him, and it certainly isn't helpful for his fundraising, Melcher says. "But I think it's too soon to say that it's going to cause a huge hit."
With more than $180,000, LePage led his two opponents in campaign fundraising over a 30-day period at the end of the most recent May filing period.