AUGUSTA — State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin’s private business activity was never discussed as a potential issue when lawmakers chose him for the job, say Republican leaders.

And they declined to pass judgment on the matter Wednesday, a day after a Democratic lawmaker asked the attorney general to determine whether the activity violates the Maine Constitution.

“I’m not a lawyer. It’s in the hands of the attorney general,” said House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland.

“I guess I’d defer to the attorney general,” said Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale. “I don’t think we even thought about that. … It never even crossed my mind.”

Poliquin, who ran for governor in the Republican primary in June 2010 and was elected treasurer by the GOP majority in the Legislature six months later, said nothing about the issue publicly Wednesday and declined to be interviewed.

The Maine Democratic Party, meanwhile, sought to turn up the heat on Poliquin by filing a complaint with the state ethics commission. The Democrats say Poliquin failed to report business activity and income on a financial disclosure form he filed last February.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, raised the initial question about Poliquin’s business activity in a letter he delivered Tuesday to Attorney General William Schneider.

“I write to request an opinion on whether the State Treasurer’s business involvement in the Popham Beach Club violates … the Maine Constitution, which prohibits the treasurer from engaging in commerce while serving in office,” Dion wrote.

Dion said he started researching legal standards for the treasurer’s job after Poliquin made news last month as a private businessman.

Poliquin appeared before the Phippsburg Planning Board seeking to expand allowable uses for the Popham Beach Club, which he owns. Neighbors opposed the expanded year-round uses, but the Planning Board and the Board of Selectmen approved Poliquin’s request.

There was talk at the time about potential conflicts of interest, but it was emotion-driven, Dion said.

“As a cop, I like facts. I decided to do some reading,” said Dion, who was a Portland police officer and Cumberland County sheriff before becoming a lawyer and a legislator.

Dion’s letter to the attorney general cites Article V, Part 3, Section 3 of the state Constitution: “The Treasurer shall not, during the treasurer’s continuance in office, engage in any business of trade or commerce, or as a broker, nor as an agent or factor for any merchant or trader.”

No one has provided evidence that Poliquin used his authority over state finances to advance his business interests. But Dion said the Constitution appears pretty clear that state treasurers shouldn’t have businesses on the side because of the potential for conflicts.

“The question is, can the treasurer engage in private business activity and uphold the roles and responsibilities of the office of state treasurer?” he said.

The attorney general’s office is reviewing the question. It’s unclear how soon it will have an answer.

In 1978, the attorney general’s office told the incoming treasurer, Jerrold Speers of Winthrop, that state law and the Constitution “require that the Treasurer, while in office, not engage in any other business or profession.”

Some Democratic lawmakers said the constitutional restriction came up during the Baldacci administration, when Treasurer David Lemoine gave up his law practice and was even advised to take his name off the law firm’s letterhead.

Lemoine could not be reached Wednesday.

Another former state treasurer, Dale McCormick, said the issue did not come up during her term, from 1997-2005, because she never had another business.

“I didn’t need to get an opinion. I just had one job and that was more than enough,” said McCormick, a Democrat who is now executive director of the Maine State Housing Authority.

McCormick declined to comment Wednesday on the politics surrounding Dion’s letter. Poliquin, who serves on the board of the housing authority, has been a leading critic of McCormick and the agency for months.

Dion said he didn’t raise the constitutional issue as political payback for Poliquin attacking a Democrat.

“I’m sorry. Thirty-two years as a cop — I want facts,” he said.

The political context was clear, however, when the Maine Democratic Party filed its complaint Wednesday with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

The complaint cited a financial disclosure form, filed in February, that covered calendar year 2010, before Poliquin was sworn in as treasurer. Sections of Poliquin’s form asking for information about businesses and self-employment income were left blank.

Poliquin has not publicly responded to the ethics complaint or the attorney general’s review. It still is not clear whether he has received a legal opinion of his own about his outside business activity.

Former Attorney General Janet Mills said Poliquin asked her office for an opinion in 2010. Because he was not a state official at the time, she advised him to ask his own attorney.

John Richardson — 620-7016

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