By Paul Mills
On the evening of April 1, 1940, State Controller William Runnells sustained two self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the chest. Runnells’ nearly successful suicide attempt would punctuate the beginning of the last legislative proceeding in Maine government that sought removal of a high ranking government official.
Though it’s been nearly four score years since this dramatic episode in Maine history, what the state endured at that time can provide some insight into how the nation might be guided in the proceedings now unfolding against President Trump in Washington.
Controller Runnells – unlike his nearly anonymous counterpart today – Douglas Cotnoir – was in effect the deputy governor of Maine. He not only was allowed to hold the state’s purse strings under three different governors over the previous decade but also prominently hobnobbed with them. He would even represent each of his Governors, whether it be Democrat Louis Brann, Republicans Tudor Gardiner or Lewis Barrows, at ceremonial proceedings. He was, in effect both a surrogate prince as well as an ersatz prime minister.
All this came to an abrupt end in early 1940 with the revelation that Runnells’ had embezzled $157,000 in state funds, much of it traced to cash in his personal safe deposit box.
Runnells soon stepped aside. There was understandable finger pointing for those perceived to have looked the other way at his malfeasance. Among them: the state auditor and deputy state treasurer, both of whom acceded to Governor Barrows’ demand for their resignations.
One high ranking officer, State Treasurer Belmont Smith, refused to bow out. It was upon Smith’s shoulders that Barrows understandably felt some responsibility for Runnells’ misconduct might fall. The governor, however, could not require Smith to resign because he was not a gubernatorial appointee, the treasurer being elected by the legislature.
Smith retained his position by a 15 to 14 vote in the Senate and a 69 to 55 vote in the House. (Just six months later the legislature re-elected Smith to another term, an outcome that might offer a modicum of encouragement perhaps to today’s supporters of the present White House incumbent.)
What does Maine’s last full-fledged legislative removal proceedings have to teach the nation today?
First, it was quick. It was a mere two weeks from the time the legislature convened until a verdict was reached.
Second, there were few partisan overtones. Nowhere, in the 250-page transcript does one find the expression “Republican” or “Democrat.”
The actual voting bears out this absence of ardent partisanship. In the House, 43 Republicans voted to remove Smith – even though he was himself a Republican – and 60 in the GOP voted against removal. Ten Democrats voted yes and nine voted no.
The story was the same in the Senate. Thirteen Republicans voted in favor of taking Smith out, 14 were against. Of the two Democrats, Lewiston’s Jean Charles Boucher favored removal while his fellow Lewiston senator, Bernard Harkins, voted against it.
What helped streamline the process in Maine was that the two houses met jointly to hear all the evidence and testimony. Though in the U.S. Senate each of the 100 members can, through the chair, pose their own questions of witnesses, no such separate questioning was allowed in Maine in 1940.
After the trial, the House and Senate adjourned to separate meeting places to vote by a simple majority.
There’s still another way in which Maine moved things along quicker than appears likely to occur in Washington in the coming weeks. In Maine, the presiding officer was given more power to make procedural rulings. Such decisions by House Speaker Donald Philbrick, presiding officer at the 1940 trial, could not be overridden by the members themselves. That’s a lot different than the last two presidential impeachment trials when the interpretations of law by the presiding officer – the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – were allowed to be debated and appealed from the federal rules are similar to those that would exist if a judge in a criminal or civil trial could be overruled by a majority of jurors each time an individual item of evidence were submitted.
It’s somewhat ironic that the federal impeachment machinery is more cumbersome in this and other respects than that in Maine in that it has been invoked no fewer than five times in the last 33 years. Aside from the cases of presidents Clinton and Trump, Congress has handled the trials of three U.S. District Court judges in this period of time.
Maine has managed to almost avoid such proceedings altogether, however. This is because the Maine legislature – overwhelmed in having to conduct six of them in a single 1913 session alone – gave up its removal authority for many of the state’s public officials in 1917. That’s when it surrendered its authority to impeach prosecutors and sheriffs, for example, to the governor and executive council. (The governor alone has more of that authority since the council was abolished in 1977.) Thus, proceedings to remove elected public officials in Maine normally play out in a forum outside the legislative arena. This was the case with the York County District attorney in 1975 and the Cumberland County Register of Deeds in 1989.
Though not since the week the British evacuated Dunkirk in 1940 has Maine had what amounted to an impeachment trial – the technical name being “removal upon address” – Maine still has something to teach the rest of the country both about how to conduct them. It also can weigh in on how a government can arrange its affairs in a way that tends to avoid them.
As for the protagonist of the scandal that gave rise to the Belmont Smith proceedings, William Runnells survived his gunshot wounds long enough to appear in a courtroom six months later to plead guilty to embezzlement. He was serving the first year of a five- to 10-year prison term when he died of a heart attack at the age of 45 in 1941.
Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine; he can be reached by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.