May 24—A legislative committee voted Monday to study ways to tighten security at the State House complex after a lawmaker testified about run-ins she had with a man who has been charged with participating in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Lawmakers on the State and Local Government Committee approved the bill on a party-line vote. Monday's vote followed testimony from Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, who detailed run-ins she had with alleged U.S. Capitol protester Kyle Fitzsimons in 2018 and 2019.
Fitzsimons, 37, of Lebanon, was arrested in February in Maine for his alleged participation in the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. A federal grand jury indicted Fitzsimons on 10 charges, including two counts of inflicting bodily injury on certain officers. He has pleaded not guilty and is currently awaiting trial at a jail in the District of Columbia.
Long before Fitzsimons was drawn into the conflict in D.C., Meyer said he confronted her on two occasions, in Kittery and again at the State House.
"He asked me how I would be voting on several upcoming pieces of legislation. He was mildly agitated and the situation was unsettling and intimidating. I listened, making no comment, and calmly asked he move his truck so that I might back out and get on my way, which he did," Meyer said. "About two weeks later, he called my name from across the fourth floor rotunda at our State House, where he was preparing to testify on several bills. I did not engage with him. I returned to my own committee room in the Cross Building, contemplating the fact this man was again in my orbit."
Meyer said her exchanges with Fitzsimons underscore the need for increased security, especially in the Cross Building, which sits adjacent to the State Capitol in Augusta and is connected to it by a short underground tunnel.
Nine of the Legislature's 15 joint standing committees meet in the Cross Building but unlike the State House the building has no regular security screening or controlled access points. The building also houses the Office of the Maine Attorney General, portions of the Maine Secretary of State's offices, the Department of Administration and Financial Services, the State Treasurer and the members of the State House media corps, who rent space on the ground floor of the building.
The bill approved by the committee Monday, L.D. 1671, would force a study of security of the State Capitol complex by the Maine Department of Public Safety. It also calls for a report in December on what can be done to improve security at the Cross Building until a detailed and updated plan from a security consultant on how to better protect lawmakers and the public.
Lt. Robert Eliot, the interim leader of the Capitol Police, said his agency would do all it could to protect people working in the Cross Building, which also houses the Capitol Police offices, but said he did not have the equipment or staff to make permanent security upgrades at this time.
"We also can make the pledge that if we have something we know is going to be controversial, where we have a raised concern, to possibly do some screenings for an individual committee room, where that hearing might be held," he said. "It's a pretty safe building overall, it doesn't mean I don't have heartburn, with the public being able to walk into that first floor and that second floor without going through any kind of locked door or anything, I do, I'll be honest with you. My guys do."
Republicans on the committee voted against the bill. John Bott, a spokesman for the House Republicans, said they opposed the study bill because it was unneeded as the Legislature's governing body, the Legislative Council could order the study and increase security without any legislation.
"You don't need a law to get the Legislative Council to act on a study of security at the Cross Building," he said. "They have the authority without a law, they just need to act."
Eliot said enhancing security at the complex could involve either additions to the existing buildings or architectural changes, but said the Department of Administration and Financial Services was committed to paying for a security consultant to develop that plan. He said there was broad agreement that security screening for the Cross Building was needed and noted that the governor's office is supportive of improving security and safety at the State House.
"We want to see it happen, we just want to make sure it is done in the right way," Eliot said.
Rep. Donna Doore, D-Augusta, said as retired state government worker she knew how long it could take the bureaucracy to move but she was concerned for the safety of state workers in the building whether the Legislature was in session or not. She asked if there had been an incidents at the building where individuals had to be removed.
Eliot said the building was relatively safe and the offices on the upper floors could not be accessed from their lobbies without an electronic access card.
"We are pretty fortunate, we've been pretty safe, " Eliot said. "But we live in a day and age when these things happen and that doesn't mean we can be complacent to that."
He said security could be tightened the way it was during the inauguration of President Biden in January, when capitol buildings across the country were under threat of attack from supporters of former President Donald Trump as he continued to dispute the results of an election he lost by more than seven million votes.
Lawmakers are expected to return to the State House for in-person sessions in the beginning of June, and Eliot said the Capitol Police would be vigilant making their presence known in the Cross Building.
Eliot also said the deputy commissioner at the Department of Administration and Financial Services hoped to have something by January "that we could look at, but that would be if the (consulting) company really made a push."
Eliot said an earlier study to tighten security at the Blaine House, the official residence of the governor, had taken several months.
But some lawmakers on the committee said they wanted more done, more quickly.
"We do live in different times, scary times and things do happen at a state capitols," said Rep. Lynn Copeland, D-Saco. "You know we did have that guy from Jan. 6 in our building and ... we heard testimony from Rep. Meyer that was bone-chilling, these are not things to be ignored or put off or studied further."
The bill will now move to the full Legislature for additional votes.