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Nov. 20—AUGUSTA — The commission investigating the Lewiston mass shootings met for the first time Monday to appoint staff members, lay out a timeline for its work and ask for the power to subpoena records and witnesses.
The seven-member Independent Commission to Investigate the Facts of the Tragedy in Lewiston voted unanimously to ask Gov. Janet Mills and Attorney General Aaron Frey to submit legislation to grant the commission subpoena power so it can access all the documents and testimony it will need as it investigates the Oct. 25 shootings.
"We hope and expect people will cooperate with us and come and make their documents and evidence available to us, but some may resist, and we would need a subpoena under those circumstances," Commissioner Toby Dilworth said. "Others may want to cooperate with us but may feel confined by privacy and other statutes that they can't turn records over in the absence of a subpoena."
Mills and Frey said in a statement Monday that they support the commission's request and are working to prepare the legislation for consideration at the start of the upcoming session, which begins Jan. 3.
"As we pledged when we established the independent commission, we will do all we can to ensure the commission has the resources and powers it needs to discharge its fact-finding responsibilities fully and properly," they said.
STAFF NAMED, BUDGET NOT YET SET
The commission, established in an executive order by the governor this month, is tasked with investigating the facts surrounding the shootings in which gunman Robert Card killed 18 people and wounded 13 others.
"Several people have said to me in the last few days that this is a daunting task," said Daniel Wathen, the commission's chairman. "That was their word for it, but it's the right word. It certainly is a daunting task, but it is a task that each of us owe to the people of Maine, and particularly to those victims and those affected directly by this horrific and unprecedented tragedy in Lewiston."
Monday's meeting was largely organizational and included discussion of a timeline and the appointment of four staff members.
Anne Jordan, an attorney and former commissioner of public safety for the state, will serve as executive director.
Brian MacMaster, who recently retired as chief of investigations for the attorney general's office, and Jim Osterrieder, a longtime private investigator and former FBI agent, will serve as investigators.
Kevin Kelley, a former reporter who has worked in communications for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, will serve as a communications consultant.
Funding for the commission will come from legal settlements collected by the attorney general's office, but an exact figure for the commission's budget has not been set and salaries for the staff appointed Monday were not finalized, a spokesperson for the AG's office said.
WORK COINCIDES WITH LEGISLATIVE SESSION
The commission is aiming to complete its work with a written report to be issued within six months, Wathen said, though he acknowledged that could be ambitious. "We will strive to meet it but not at the expense of failing to establish the truth."
He said the commission plans to comply with the governor's executive order calling for it to work in a way that is open and accessible to the public. "Our goal is maximum transparency," Wathen said.
The commission's findings could spur legislative efforts, although it's unclear if that would happen in the upcoming session, which is scheduled to run through mid-April and could conclude before the commission's work is done.
Lawmakers already have proposed more than a half-dozen bills in response to the shootings, though it remains to be seen if legislative leaders will allow them to be taken up. The governor also has the ability to introduce new legislation during the session.
Spokespeople for Mills, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, said they plan to move forward with consideration of policy changes in the upcoming session, while also following the commission's work.
"The governor envisions a concurrent process in which she works with the Legislature and stakeholders from varying viewpoints to consider potential changes to law during the upcoming legislative session, while welcoming the results from the independent commission's fact-finding mission to contribute to that discussion and any future discussions when it is done," Mills spokesperson Ben Goodman said in an email.
"I see no reason why the Legislature cannot examine existing laws and explore ways to prevent future tragedies like what unfolded in Lewiston while the independent commission conducts its work," Jackson said in a statement. "It is what we owe the victims' families, survivors, the people of Lewiston and the entire state. Lawmakers will continue to monitor the commission's work in the lead up to the legislative session and support the group's effort to conduct a transparent, objective and comprehensive review."
"Concurrently, the Legislature will be moving forward with their own process and considering a number of policy changes in the next session," Mary Erin Casale, a spokesperson for Talbot Ross, said in a statement.
"The speaker will continue to engage with her colleagues from both sides of the aisle, the Mills administration, our communities, and experts in law enforcement and behavioral health to have serious discussions about addressing the disturbing violence that occurs with unregulated dangerous weapons and inadequate funding of mental health services. She does not believe we can wait any longer to begin this critical work," Casale said.
Lawmakers from both parties have expressed support for the investigation, but it's not clear if there will be enough support give the commission subpoena power when the Legislature gathers in early January. It would take a bipartisan vote of two-thirds of the Legislature to grant the power as emergency legislation so that it would go into effect in time to aid the investigation.
Talbot Ross supports the commission's work and believes the Legislature "should provide them with the tools necessary to determine the facts of the Oct. 25 shootings in Lewiston," Casale said. "However, they must do this work while maintaining the rights, privacy and memory of those directly impacted by this tragedy. She and the entire Legislature will be paying close attention."
'A DAUNTING TASK'
The commission heard public comments from a handful of people attending Monday's meeting. None identified themselves as family or friends of victims as they spoke to some of the things they would like to see the commission address.
Scott Berry, a resident of Auburn, said he was grateful to the governor for forming the commission and to those who are serving on it. He said the community is continuing to feel pain in the wake of the shootings and asked the commission to consider a proposal for a red flag law to remove guns from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.
"I urge you to collectively focus on crafting comprehensive and forward-thinking solutions that will reduce the likelihood of a similar tragedy occurring here in Maine in the future," Berry said.
Rep. Sue Salisbury, D-Westbrook, House chair of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said she hopes the commission will seek input from law enforcement despite no law enforcement officers being named to the body.
"I hope you're able to draw on a lot of the great experience we have in the state of law enforcement officials as you navigate the tasks ahead of you," Salisbury said.
The commission plans to start collecting and examining documents and reports on the shootings already in existence, including media reports, in order to determine what areas need further investigation as it begins its work.
Its next meeting is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 14 at a location to be determined.