Legislative leaders in Maine and Washington have recently share a dilemma over how to handle allegations lodged against their House members for serious misconduct. At the federal level, it’s the unrelenting cascade that each passing day seems to serve up yet another unsavory episode dogging GOP Congressman George Santos. In Maine, it’s the 33 count indictment of Democratic Representative Clinton Collamore, on election fund raising charges that include 20 counts of aggravated forgery. Though Collamore has just announced his plans to resign – while at the same time insisting on his innocence in the pending criminal case – his situation had for several weeks posed a challenge to House leadership on how to deal with his situation.
In both cases the issues came to light within weeks after their respective elections as freshman legislators.
Recent decades in Maine have featured a number of legislators who have – in the face of likely expulsion – resigned their positions when either charged or convicted of criminal charges. Such charges in the last 20 years have typically featured – as in Collamore’s case – violations associated with the state’s so-called Clean Election fund raising procedures, ones that since legislators first became eligible for them in 2000 have seriously ensnarled at least a half dozen. Another resigned in 2011 when charged with pulling a .22 caliber handgun on a Waterville newspaper photographer.
Earlier, in 1987, an Augusta legislator resigned in the aftermath of his conviction for a single count of tampering with an absentee ballot even though then it was only a misdemeanor.
Whatever the outcome for Santos and Collamore, however, they each might aspire to achieve some consolation in the strange odyssey of two of their illustrious predecessors in the Maine legislature, both of whom won accolades in multiple legislative terms to which they were elected, even after their respective felony convictions.
Louis Jalbert: This Maine legislator’s conviction for conspiracy to bribe came in 1965, mid-way through a four decade public career. Jalbert’s offense was shaking down a constituent for $200. This was so that Jalbert could bribe a Lewiston municipal court judge to squelch a larceny investigation against the constituent’s father. He was also convicted of obtaining money by false pretenses, this based on Jalbert’s statement to the constituent that the judge was amenable to a bribe when in fact he wasn’t.
As with Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross’s demand that Collamore resign, so too did 1965 House Speaker Dana Childs – a Portland Democrat like R0ss – feel that some action was necessary. Perhaps due to Jalbert’s long standing position – he in the late 1940’s had been the Democratic floor leader – the 1965 speaker stopped short of asking for a resignation but instead refused to appoint Jalbert House Chair of the Appropriations Committee, a position for which Jalbert would otherwise been in line.
His colleagues in Augusta otherwise stood by Jalbert. At the State House he was named chair of the influential Legislative Research Committee and remained respected by solons on both sides of the aisle for his unsurpassed knowledge of state finances.
Bringing home the bacon to the Lewiston area helped him weather the storm that brewed after his conviction. Only two years before, in 1963, he had successfully obtained the legislative charter for the state’s second post secondary vocational institution, now known as Central Maine Community College. It’s an accomplishment memorialized at its Auburn campus today by the designation of one its most prominent facilities: Jalbert Hall.
And so voters back home continued to back Jalbert, re-electing him to an eleventh term in 1966 and to eight more terms in a streak of victories that did not end until he was denied re-nomination in the 1984 primary elections. His 38 years in the Maine legislature would for a time be a longevity record for the state, the fifth longest of any state legislator in the nation, his record surpassed only in recent years by John Martin.
Lewiston’s support can also be attributed to the reins the city’s legislators then held over local government. For most of his time was in the pre-home rule era before 1970 when urban municipalities had to seek legislative approval when amending their charters. Jalbert called upon this authority with adroit political effect, sponsoring changes that gave greater benefits to public works and fire department employees, for example.
Jalbert’s electoral triumphs were also a tribute to his assiduous devotion to the individual needs of his constituents, intervening with state officials about a driver’s license mix up here, a liquor or food service license there, in effect an ombudsman.. He did this with the expectation of being compensated by voter support.
Jalbert would also at various times be beleaguered by innuendo about influence peddling, something which his occasionally chest thumping, blustering demeanor did not always dispel.
Frank B. Foster: His conviction for embezzling $4,500 in bonds and his year long sentence to state prison might have seemed like the end of the line for this 32-year old Bangor attorney in 1941. Nevertheless, on his release from Thomaston, Foster relocated to Mechanic Falls, 10 miles west of Auburn. Less than four years after his release from prison Foster was elected to the town council, by 1949 its chair and for many years wielding the gavel as town meeting moderator. His come back was propelled by two fortuitous circumstances: by being some 120 miles from the Bangor stomping grounds of his earlier troubles and by a fluke in the legal process. For the Attorney General’s office and state Supreme Court let the matter of suspending his professional license fall through cracks, never suspending his right to practice law. He thus put out his shingle in his new home town without having to apply for reinstatement. It was an oversight they likely would not come to regret.
Soon banks, one of which named him to its governing board and real estate agents would be referring work to him. He became a pillar in the community.
By 1954, the Mechanic Falls-Minot-Turner district elected Foster to the legislature, where he served four terms, the last ending in 1971. In Augusta, he was both popular and respected. He effectively brought his expertise in municipal and real estate law to bear on a number of issues, usually winning support for the positions he advocated in thoughtful and detailed presentations.
My favorite is his successful sponsorship in 1970 of a bill that for a time did away with the six inch length requirement for catching trout in brooks and streams. Foster reasoned that so many of the small trout were dying after being hooked and thrown back in – and the larger fish in smaller streams were nearly non-existent. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to be caught he argued. After Foster’s departure from the legislature the six inch minimum was reinstated.
Foster was killed in a head-on auto collision in Poland at the end of 1971, shortly after the end of his last term. Jalbert died in 1989, five years after he was defeated when seeking a 20th term.
To be sure, there are differences between their predicaments and the specters now confronting Santos and Collamore. For one thing neither of these contemporary figures have been convicted. The tolerance of their constituencies if they are may well be different. The resilience both Foster and Jalbert demonstrated in their lifetimes, however, is a reminder today to officials such as Congressman Santos and Representative Collamore that the multitude of allegations they now confront might not in the long run preclude a redeeming future in public life.
Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his history and analyses on public affairs in Maine; He can be reached at: email@example.com