AUGUSTA — A leading State House Democrat is asking her colleagues to support a bill that would give the Legislature jurisdiction over the Capitol Police, the law enforcement agency that guards the State House and associated buildings.

Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland said Maine should join with the U.S. Congress and several other states in having the law enforcement agency that guards the seat of government be under legislative control.

“The Legislature should have a say in its own security and should be a partner in directing our own safety as well as the safety of those whom we work with and members of the public as they engage in the legislative process,” Talbot Ross said at a meeting of the Legislative Council on Thursday.

The council, which governs legislative operations and is comprised of leaders from both parties, voted unanimously to accept the proposed bill for debate, even though the deadline for submitting legislation has passed. The text of the bill is still being written.

A Capitol Police vehicle is parked at the Maine State House in mid-January. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Capitol Police, a 13-member force, is overseen by the Department of Public Safety, an executive branch agency led by Commissioner Michael Sauschuck. The force is under the temporary command of a lieutenant while state human resources specialists investigate controversial social media posts by Chief Russell Gauvin.

In November, Gauvin posted that he had “zero confidence” in the results of the election in which then-candidate Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump. Gauvin also shared a post that referred to the election as “a psychological operation of epic proportions.”

In other posts, he shared commentary that mocked the use of face masks to guard against spreading COVID-19 and suggested masking is part of a bigger plot to control the public.

Messages to Sauschuck and Gov. Janet Mills seeking comment on the proposal to shift the Capitol Police to the control of the Legislature were not returned Friday.

Gauvin has apologized and taken down the posts, which were first revealed this month in a story by Mainer, an online publication. The story came in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot in Washington, D.C., that saw rioters incited by Trump storm the Congress and briefly occupy the U.S. Senate and other spaces in the Capitol building.

Talbot Ross said just this Wednesday, the federal Department of Homeland Security issued an advisory that a heightened threat environment persists across the United States. There also were warnings that state houses could be attacked on Jan. 20, the day President Biden was inaugurated.

Security was beefed up in Augusta last week, with an increased presence of state police in riot gear, limited entry to buildings and added security screening checkpoints. Mills also briefly activated the Maine National Guard should it be needed, but only three protesters materialized.

Those security measures were scaled back this week, but the State House remains closed to the public, largely because of pandemic-related restrictions.

Sauschuck told lawmakers on the Legislative Council on Thursday that state police had discovered no “credible threats” against the State House but remained vigilant.

Talbot Ross did not say if her bill was a direct response to Gauvin’s posts. However, she pointed out that safety and security policies set by the Legislative Council are often enforced by Capitol Police.

“Consider the current face-covering policy, decided by lawmakers on this panel and transmitted to our Capitol Police for enforcement,” Talbot Ross said.  “It makes a great deal of sense that we would have some say (in) overseeing the force that carries out these decisions.”

Talbot Ross’s proposal follows letters from majority Democrats and minority Republicans to Sauschuck over Gauvin’s posts.

In the Democratic letter, which Talbot Ross signed, lawmakers told Sauschuck they want Gauvin put on administrative leave while the comments and posts are investigated.  In their letter, Republicans defended Gauvin’s right to free speech and say his years of loyal and effective service should be commended.

Sauschuck and Mills have said little about the investigation of Gauvin’s posts, citing advice from the Maine Attorney General’s Office that personnel matters are confidential.

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