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Gov. Janet Mills and Attorney General Aaron Frey have rightly initiated an independent review of the facts surrounding the Lewiston shooting that claimed 18 lives and injured 13 others. The seven-member commission is slated to begin its work Monday, and we believe they should waste little time in seeking additional investigatory power, if the commission decides it needs it.
Many questions remain unanswered about missed warning signs ahead of the shooting, about gaps in law and information sharing, and about the police response following the shooting. The commission must not only follow the facts, but be able to secure them should any individuals or institutions refuse to participate in the investigation or refuse to provide requested information.
The framework and make-up of the commission is encouraging. We’re confident that commission chair Daniel Wathen, a former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and his fellow commissioners have the significant and broad experience needed to conduct this review. But we do believe that commissioners should have the added tool of subpoena power at their disposal.
As Mills’ office explained to the BDN editorial board, the governor and the attorney general lacked the statutory authority to provide subpoena power while setting this commission up. They aren’t opposed to the commission having this power, didn’t want to pre-judge the commission’s work or needs, and said in a Nov. 8 letter to commissioners that they “stand ready to seek any appropriate authorization from the Legislature” should the commission determine it needs more investigatory power or funding.
Kevin Kelley, a commision spokesperson, told the editorial board that this matches Wathen’s understanding in terms of the governor and attorney general standing ready to ask the Legislature for subpoena power should the commission want it. Kelley said this issue may be discussed at Monday’s initial meeting. We hope it will be.
As similar commissions have found in other states, subpoena power can be a critical element in this type of effort. A commission launched to investigate the 2019 Virginia Beach mass shooting, for example, emphasized the importance of subpoena power in a recent report.
That’s why the commission, which begins its work on Monday, should move quickly to consider the added investigatory tool of subpoena power. If asked, the Legislature should provide it as soon as it returns to session.
“Subpoena power affords those talking to the Commission protection against retaliation,” the Virginia commissioners wrote in a “Lessons Learned from Obstacles the Commission Faced” section of their September report. “Subpoena power is a powerful tool that helps a Commission break down obstacles as well as overcome managers’ and employees’ lack of willingness to cooperate in an investigation.”
The Lewiston shooting commission does not need to learn this lesson for itself. Together with the governor, attorney general and Legislature, the commission can preempt this issue by seeking and securing subpoena power early in the process.
Mills and Frey appropriately asked commissioners to “follow the facts, wherever they may lead, and that you do so in an independent and objective manner, biased by no one and guided only by the pursuit of truth.” They also said commissioners “should ask any question necessary of any person that is relevant to your charge in gathering the facts.”
We agree, with one addition. They should ask any question necessary, but they also must be able to compel answers to those questions. That is where subpoena power can make a significant difference.
In addition to being definitively empowered to conduct this investigation fully, commissioners must also be careful to keep the investigation as transparent as possible.
There is an obvious concern when reading in a story from BDN politics reporter Billy Kobin that “the commission’s records, deliberations and proceedings are not subject to all provisions of the state’s Freedom of Access Act” because it is an advisory body. We are somewhat reassured, however, with Kelley clarifying that this act would apply at the conclusion of the commission’s work.
“Chairman Wathen has pledged that, so far as practical, the commission intends to be as public as possible so long as it does not hinder its fact finding mission. The final report would also be public,” Kelley said in an email. “The commission is committed to conducting as much work as possible in an open setting, while also being sensitive to privacy concerns, so that the people of Maine can see for themselves that each member is dedicated to pursuing the facts regardless of where they lead.”
That is ultimately what this review must be about: pursuing the truth, and ensuring that the people of Maine have access to it. The commission can further both goals by seeking subpoena power and remaining committed to transparency throughout the process.