A failed referendum effort led by national conservatives and the top Republican in the Maine House of Representatives was “rife” with signature fraud that prompted a police investigation, Maine’s top election official told lawmakers last week.

No charges have been filed so far by the attorney general’s office. The target of the probe is unclear. But House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said neither he nor his political group had been investigated as part of the case that Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, disclosed to the Legislature’s voting committee last Tuesday.

The news comes as Faulkingham’s coalition stands to potentially gain a six-figure settlement from the state after winning a lawsuit linked to the same referendum drive that aimed to bar noncitizens from voting in Maine municipal elections.

That effort began in 2019 as part of a national push for similar laws from national conservatives. Noncitizens are already explicitly barred from voting in state and federal elections, and Attorney General Aaron Frey has contended Maine law also prohibits it in local elections.

The effort was chiefly run by the Liberty Initiative Fund, a national conservative group that poured at least $836,000 into the Maine campaign, getting roughly half of that from Republican megadonor Dick Uihlein. Nearly $593,000 went to signature gatherer James Tracey of Auburn, while Faulkingham’s group paid Tracey another $65,000, campaign finance records show.

It did not pay off. The coalition submitted roughly 66,000 signatures from registered Maine voters to Bellows’ office by 2021, just 3,300 more than would have been needed to make the ballot. The secretary of state’s office ruled that a staggering 25,000 of those were invalid, barring the group from putting the initiative before Maine voters.

Police investigated the effort, conducting interviews with “people who were potentially engaged in fraudulent signature collection and with people whose names were fraudulently placed on the petitions” and the probe found “substantial fraud,” Bellows told lawmakers on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee last week.

“Whether it rises to the level of prosecution lies with the office of the attorney general,” she said.

Frey’s office has not filed charges in the case, spokesperson Danna Hayes said. Faulkingham said he did not know who the subject of the investigation was, but he guessed that it was likely one of the hired circulators who worked on the campaign. Tracey, who organized much of the signature collection effort, did not respond to a call and email seeking comment.

By that time the question failed to make the ballot, a federal judge had already ruled in favor of Faulkingham’s group and the Liberty Initiative Fund in their lawsuit against Bellows over a state law requiring referendum petition circulators to be from Maine. The ruling was upheld by an appeals court in July and a court filing last week showed the sides are close to a settlement.

Bellows said last week that the state is likely to be on the hook for legal fees for Faulkingham’s side. That cost could be in the six figures, and the petitioner law deemed unconstitutional is already not being enforced, she said.

This was the third set of signature fraud allegations made public last week in Maine. Rep. Clinton Collamore, D-Waldoboro, was called on by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, to resign after an indictment related to Maine’s taxpayer-funded Clean Election system was made public. A Republican legislative candidate from 2022 faces a similar set of charges.