September 19, 2019

State official’s actions under investigation

AUGUSTA – An internal investigation will be conducted into the actions of an official with the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles who helped an Irish citizen obtain a Maine driver’s license in 2006, according to a spokesman for the secretary of state. The Irish citizen, Niall Clarke, later was convicted of robbing a Bangor bank.

Robert O’Connell, director of licensing services at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, was named in court documents as having assisted Clarke in quickly getting a Maine license after the two had a conversation in a Boston bar. Federal investigators have looked into the incident and determined no laws were broken, according to Don Cookson, communications director for Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.

The investigation into O’Connell’s actions comes to light as the Legislature considers toughening laws governing the issuance of licenses in order to bolster state and national security.

O’Connell, who remains on the job, was unavailable for comment Thursday.

“Bob is just trying to maintain the integrity of the investigation that is taking place,” Cookson said Thursday of O’Connell’s unavailability. “There is an investigation into Mr. O’Connell’s dealing with Mr. Clarke and if any disciplinary action is taken it will be made public. This internal investigation comes as a result of information in the federal investigation. Nothing in that investigation resulted in any charges being brought against Mr. O’Connell and there was no violation of state or federal law.”

“[Clarke] was in the country legally at the time and had a legal right to get a license,” Cookson said.

Clarke, who according to court documents was in the U.S. on a visa at the time he received the Maine license, is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday in a Bangor court for robbing the Bank of America branch near the Bangor Mall on Oct. 4, 2006.

Cookson described the way Clarke was issued a Maine license as an isolated incident. According to court records, O’Connell met Clarke by chance in a Boston bar on St. Patrick’s Day 2006. Over drinks, Clarke told O’Connell he was in the country illegally and was having a hard time getting a license in Massachusetts and O’Connell suggested he try Maine. The two exchanged e-mails over the next few weeks as O’Connell helped Clarke navigate the application process.

Cookson said the personal assistance O’Connell lent Clarke was within the law. He compared O’Connell’s interaction with Clarke as similar to someone bumping into his or her doctor at the market and asking for advice about a sore shoulder.

Cookson said that when the Maine U.S. Attorney’s Office reviewed the case it recommended the internal investigation. He said an outside counsel would be brought in to conduct the investigation. He would not speculate on when it would be completed.

“It is unfortunate that this required an investigation but it’s important that people want to see it done,” he said. “The fact is that a detailed federal investigation [by the U.S. Attorney’s Office] has been conducted and, as a result of that investigation being conducted with great vigor, there was no hint of illegal activity by Mr. O’Connell.”

Cookson described O’Connell as an attorney and said he had been with state government for more than 20 years. When federal investigators interviewed O’Connell he acknowledged that he believed Clarke was in the country illegally when he helped him get a license. In fact, Clarke’s visa had not yet expired and he was in the country legally at the time he got the license, according to court documents.

Cookson said that under current law “the possibility exists” that someone in the country illegally “may be able” to obtain a Maine driver’s license.

He said that under current law, applicants provide the motor vehicle bureau with an address and Social Security number. In the event they do not have a Social Security number, applicants must produce a form stating they are ineligible for Social Security. The forms are available from Social Security. The bureau then enters a number composed of all nines instead of a Social Security number in its computer database of driver’s licenses. Cookson noted that Maine was one of seven states where it is considered easy to obtain a license.

“A person can be a resident of another state and get a driver’s license in Maine,” he said. “Obviously, that can be considered a loophole.”

Cookson said the bureau’s computer system contains approximately 2,600 active licenses with all nines on the Social Security line.

“That doesn’t mean they all are in the country illegally. There are several reasons that could occur. They could be students, they could be on a visitor visa,” he said. “The bureau has to put in a number. All nines is currently used as a place holder.”

Cookson said that recent cases where people were apprehended driving van loads of individuals across the state line for the purpose of getting driver’s licenses pointed out the need to change the law.

He said the Legislature was debating whether a residency requirement should be added to the law. He noted that the strictest residency requirement now in state law for the purpose of obtaining a license is applied to hunting and fishing licenses. He said he expected the Legislature would require residency documents for driving licenses that would be “more stringent” than those needed to get a fishing or hunting license.

Cookson said the state does not want to find itself having to determine whether a person applying for a license is a legal resident of the country. He said documentation indicating state residency should serve the purpose in terms of licensing drivers. Perhaps a rent receipt or utility bill would be ways to accomplish that, he said.

“Legal residence is really an immigration and federal purview,” he said. “The state is not in the position of determining if a person is in the country illegally.”


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