AUGUSTA — Secretary of State Charlie Summers announced he is pursuing a two-pronged investigation into potential voter fraud, stemming from allegations made by an employee within his department and leaders of the Maine Republican Party.

Summers told reporters during a press conference Thursday that an employee at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles approached him on July 1 with allegations that people she suspected of being non-citizens had engaged in possible voter and identity fraud. Further, she alleged that she had been told to destroy evidence she had gathered proving her suspicions by senior officials in the Secretary of State’s Office. The alleged actions occurred under “previous administrations,” according to Summers, but he would not specify when. He said the allegations went back at least five years.

“(She) reported to me her experiences of accepting voter registration forms from customers she believed to be non-citizens,” Summers said. “When she voiced her concerns under previous administrations and provided documentation in support of her conclusions, senior level management … instructed her to disregard such activity and destroy the documents she had compiled related to this subject.”

Summers declined to offer further details about the allegations, citing the ongoing investigation.

Former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat contemplating running for the U.S. Senate, denied any impropriety while he held the office from 2005 to 2010.

“I had no dealings whatsoever with any allegations that someone tried to improperly register to vote who was not a qualified citizen,” he said in an interview. “Until they actually put some names and dates on this, it’s just a political firestorm is all it is.”

Maine had been criticized for having lax regulations around who could be issued a driver’s license and federal prosecutors had successfully pursued cases of illegal immigrants being issued Maine licenses during Dunlap’s tenure.

But Dunlap said he worked for several years to tighten the system, including “no longer accepting expired foreign documents or requiring the collection of a Social Security number.”

He also said he encouraged a pro-active document destroying process after a detective from the department approached him early in his term with concerns about the treatment of sensitive information.

“(He) said, ‘look I’m really concerned that people are filling out forms, making mistakes and throwing them in the trash and then it’s left out in the open,’” Dunlap said. “So we began shredding. But we never would have ordered the shredding of a document that could have supported the prosecution of a criminal act.”

Dunlap also said Summers was “treading on very dangerous ground” by appearing to politicize his position as secretary of state.

“Everybody knew I had a ‘D’ on my sleeve and everybody knows he has an ‘R’ on his. It’s how you act, it’s how you behave,” he said. “The fact that I knew the Republicans were watching me like a hungry hawk hovering over a fat mouse added to, I believe, the integrity of my work.”

State Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, is a former secretary of state who launched the so-called motor-voter initiative in the 1990′s. He said allegations of document destroying are extremely serious and should be rigorously investigated.

“I hope they are going to be more specific, because otherwise they are incriminating a lot of people,” Diamond said in an interview following the press conference.

Summers, who served as the vice-chairman of the Maine GOP until December, said he is also following up on claims of voter fraud made by Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party.

Webster claimed at least 206 out-of-states students had potentially illegally voted in Maine in the 2010 election.

Webster’s research was prompted in response to a recently launched petition effort to force a statewide repeal vote on a law eliminating Election Day voter registration in Maine.

Summers, who initiated the law some groups are trying to repeal, said eliminating same-day registration has nothing to do with preventing fraud, but rather it would provide administrative relief to clerks. He said he is rolling the two investigations together and is working with both the state Attorney General’s Office and federal law enforcement.

“Maine people are good, law-abiding citizens; of this I have no doubt. But to think that we are immune to fraud, including voter fraud, is naïve at best,” Summers said.

David Farmer, spokesman for the people’s veto coalition, said though Summers denied the press conference was related to the petition effort, his actions spoke differently.

“With his words he said it wasn’t related to same-day registration, which is true, but with his actions of having a press conference where he could release no information, it was about confusing the issue of voter fraud with same-day registration,” he said.

Rebekah Metzler — 620-7016

rmetzler@mainetoday.com