Casco vote tampering investigation underway
By Bill Cleary
The Office of the Maine Attorney General is investigating an incident of vote tampering alleged to have occurred at a meeting of the Casco Finance Committee in response to complaints and evidence submitted by two of the committee's former members.
The alleged incident occurred at the Casco Finance Committee's meeting on May 11, 2011, during a vote on whether or not to recommend that the town allocate $75,000 of its money toward the Loon Echo Land Trust's purchase of the 27-acre Hacker's Hill property that has been for sale for years.
Video of the meeting shows that the vote passed, 4-2-0, with committee members Jeannine Oren and Jennifer Murray dissenting, and Finance Committee Chairwoman Holly Hancock verbally confirms this record.
However, the official warrant of the committee's votes -- recorded by Hancock -- lists the outcome as a unanimous 6-0-0, conflicting with the video record and Oren and Murray's recollections of the vote.
''I knew for a fact I'd voted against it, because I argued for like 20 minutes,'' Oren said. ''It's amazing to me how that one moment in time triggered all of this. It's unbelievable -- what are the odds that you would actually capture vote tampering on a videotape? Nobody in here -- no lawyers, not the people accused -- nobody is denying the facts of what happened.''
Oren discovered the discrepancy between what Hancock said at the meeting and wrote on the warrant on May 26, 2011, when a Bridgton News article on Loon Echo Land Trust's efforts to buy Hacker's Hill reported that the deal included a request for $75,000 from Casco taxpayers -- and that the request had the unanimous approval of the Finance Committee.
Since then, Oren and Murray have pursued every option and avenue available to them to attempt to correct the warrant and make public the correct result of the vote. Until the attorney general's office commenced its investigation last month, they had been rebuffed at every turn.
Oren believes the disconnect between what Hancock said and what she apparently wrote at the May 11 meeting and the responses she has received to her complaints from members of the town government are symptoms of larger problems of corruption and disengagement in Casco.
''You have no idea the firestorm this has kicked up over the disconnect between what she said and what she wrote down. It has threatened millions of dollars coming into this region,'' Oren said. ''And I hold Holly Hancock, Loon Echo, Dave Morton, the town manager in Casco; Barbara York, the chairman of the Board of Selectmen; and every selectman currently on the board responsible for this miscarriage of justice.''
On May 27, 2011, Oren wrote an email to Hancock expressing her confusion at the report of the vote in the Bridgton News article and asking her what the town selectmen referred to when making budget decisions earlier that week.
In her response the next day, Hancock wrote that her records showed the outcome of the vote as 5-1-0 -- contradicting both the official warrant and the video record.
''Now we have a different story about the vote,'' Oren said. ''She still isn't going to own the actual vote, because that's too scary. She's been working for two years to get that money, and she knows it's going to go on the warrant, and she's not going to risk that because there's too much at stake. Her reputation is at stake as a community leader -- she's the fire chief, rescue chief; this is the woman who can get the job done -- and she wasn't going to let the democratic process get in the way.''
Oren, who worked as a news anchor at WMTW-8 in Portland and has decades of experience as a journalist, suspected Hancock of tampering with the vote to bolster public support for the Hacker's Hill deal. Hancock is a member of Loon Echo Land Trust's Technical Advisory Team, which met in regard to the Hacker's Hill deal at least 16 times in 2011.
''Now my reporter's instinct, like hair on the back of a dog's neck, is way up. I know somebody's lying because it doesn't pass the straight-face test. I was there; I know the truth -- I saw it,'' Oren said. ''No one is denying the facts of this.''
Oren and Murray each wrote certified letters to town officials, and both were delivered to the town office June 1, 2011, at 12:50 p.m.
In her letter, addressed to Morton and the Board of Selectmen, Murray states that she believes election law was violated in the May 11 Finance Committee meeting. She also states that 4-2-0 was the correct result of the contested vote.
Oren's letter, addressed solely to Morton, also cites 4-2-0 as the correct result, and she also calls upon Morton to correct the warrant and begin an investigation into the incident. Oren also sent a similar email to Morton at 3:07 p.m. the same day.
Oren said in both of her messages that she thought her and Murray's votes were being deliberately altered to influence the vote on the allocation of funds at the June 8, 2011, Casco Town Meeting.
Morton responded to Oren via email at 4:57 p.m. In his email, he dismissed Oren's concerns about the validity of the vote or the warrant. He also said that the correct vote tally would be presented to the public when the relevant article came up for discussion at the town meeting -- and cited the correct vote tally as 5-1-0.
''Now we can't get an investigation at the local level because they won't even return our phone calls,'' Oren said. ''They won't respond to charges or investigate; they won't put it on the agenda. They have totally disengaged us, which is where this frustration begins. Now I'm totally shut out, and they all know I'm right. And the people from Casco are going to have to swallow it.''
At the June 8 Town Meeting, the packet showed the Finance Committee's vote on Article 23, the Hacker's Hill appropriation, as 6-0-0. No attempt was made to correct the vote tally during the meeting.
Oren resigned from the Casco Finance Committee on June 9, 2011. Neither Murray nor Oren ever heard back from any of the town selectmen.
Since the Town Meeting, Murray and Oren have been in contact with the attorney general's office and have provided Assistant Attorney General Phyllis Gardiner with video and documentary evidence of vote tampering at the May 11, 2011, Finance Committee meeting. Last month, Gardiner confirmed that the matter had been turned over to the office's investigative division.
Ironically, Oren originally supported the Hacker's Hill deal and only voted against the appropriation because she felt more details of it needed to be worked out. Now, she's against the deal because she believes those involved have committed crimes to push it along.
''When we realized that the vote has been tampered with and that we now have to rely on the alleged criminals to correct the vote, we know we're in trouble,'' Oren said. ''We know the people of Casco are in big trouble.''