The Independent Commission to Investigate the Facts of the Tragedy met publicly today for the first time.
Established by Gov. Janet Mills (D) via an executive order on November 9, 2023, the Commission was charged with the responsibility of determining “the facts surrounding the tragedy in Lewiston on October 25th, including relevant facts and circumstances leading up to it and the police response to it.”
They are also directed to investigate the shooter’s mental health history and access to firearms, as well as any contact he had with State, Federal, or military authorities.
In a joint letter to the Commission from Gov. Mills and Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, they wrote that they selected these particular individuals because they each bring “a wealth of personal and professional legal, behavioral, investigatory, or other experiences that will help bring to light these facts for all to know and understand.
The Commission is comprised of individuals with a range of backgrounds, each speaking to a different aspect of the Commission’s impending investigation.
The Honorable Daniel E. Wathen — former Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court — is serving as the Chair of the Commission.
Included among the other six members come from legal and mental health backgrounds.
Dr. Deborah Baeder is board certified in forensic psychology and has served in Maine as the Chief Forensic Psychologist for the State Forensic Service and as the Director of Clinical Services in the Office of Behavioral Health.
George T. Dilworth, Esq. is an attorney at Drummond Woodsum.
The Honorable Ellen A. Gorman served on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court for fifteen years before retiring in 2022.
The Honorable Geoffrey A. Rushlau is a former Maine District Court Judge and former District Attorney in the state.
The Honorable Paula D. Silsby is the former United States Attorney for Maine and currently works for McCloskey, Mina, Cunniff & Frawley in Portland.
Dr. Anthony Ng is a board-certified psychiatrist specializing in disaster mental health and emergency psychiatry.
“All that we ask is that you follow the facts, wherever they may lead, and that you do so in an independent and objective manner, biased by no one and guided only by the pursuit of truth,” Mills and Attorney General Frey wrote in their letter to the Commission.
Today’s meeting was focused on setting expectations for the Commission’s work over the next several months.
After the newly-selected staff members introduced themselves and were officially approved by the Commission, the Chair offered some brief opening remarks.
Chairman Walthan explained that he would be primarily addressing three points this morning — the Commission’s timeline, their path forward, and their intentions for transparency.
Concerning the Commission’s timeline, Walthan stated that they hope to have concluded their investigation and produced a written public report within six months.
This report would include the Commission’s detailed findings, including with relation to law enforcement officials’ response before, during, and after the crisis, as well as what was done or could have been done to prevent this tragedy.
Although Walthan said the Commission would strive to meet this goal, they would not do so at the expense of “establish[ing] the truth regarding what occurred.”
According to Walthan, the Commission’s first step toward this final product is conducting a thorough review of all reports and materials currently available to determine what areas require further investigation and what the Commission’s priorities will be.
“Our goal is maximum transparency,” Walthan asserted, but he noted that the Commission cannot yet make any promises as to what exactly will be made public and what will need to be kept private, citing concerns about potential lawsuits and the willingness of key individuals to speak in a public forum.
In their letter to the Commission, Mills and Frey explained that they “encourage the Independent Commission to conduct its work in public to the greatest extent possible, insofar as it does not limit or hinder the ability of the Independent Commission to uncover the facts.”
Mills and Frey also wrote that they hope the Commission will “conduct its work with a due sense of urgency, guided by, above all else, the pursuit of facts and the necessary time that may take.”
“As we have said, the complete facts and circumstances — including any failures or omissions — must be brought to light and known by all,” the letter concluded. “The families of the victims, those who were injured, and the people of Maine and the nation deserve nothing less.”
Discussions of transparency today were particularly noteworthy given that Mills’ executive order exempted the Commission from the Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) that typically grants the public access to government records.
Although this exemption stands out, it is in alignment with the FOAA statute cited in the order, which states that a commission established by Executive Order may be exempted from the application of Maine’s FOAA, if specifically stated in the order.
The second citation provided in the order exempts the commission’s proceedings — including agendas, minutes, or other working documents — from being recorded and being published for the public, as it is an advisory body without decision-making authority.
According to Commission spokesperson Kevin Kelley, the exemption only applies to the Commission during the course of its investigatory work and that “FOAA law would apply upon the conclusion of the commission’s work.”
That said, there is no language in the executive order that specifically clarifies an expiration date for the exemption, leaving several unresolved questions with regards to the framework that will guide the release of the Commission’s work to the public.
After addressing the issue of transparency, Walthan then moved on to discuss the question of whether the Commission ought to accept Mills’ offer to pursue a request with the Legislature to grant them subpoena power to “ensure [their] effectiveness and advance [their] goal of transparency.”
The Commission then voted unanimously in favor of moving forward with that process.
At this point, Walthan opened the meeting up to public comment.
Several residents offered emotional testimony and expressed their willingness to work with the Commission to help it achieve its goals.
Rep. Suzanne M. Salisbury (D-Westbrook) — Chair of the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety and the Committee on Ethics — then took the opportunity to speak to members of the Commission.
Rep. Salisbury expressed concerns over the lack of direct law enforcement representation and involvement on the Commission, stating her hope that the Maine law enforcement community “can be used as the experts they are” as the Commission investigates the Lewiston tragedy.
Walthan closed this morning’s event by explaining that they will “make every effort” to have all future public meetings live-streamed so as to best inform the public of the work they are doing.
The Commission stated today that it plans to meet again publicly on December 14, 2023. Additional details regarding the time and place of this meeting will be announced as they become available.