AUGUSTA – The Kennebec Journal wants a judge to order the state to provide documents it received in John Richardson’s effort to get public funding for his gubernatorial campaign.

MaineToday Media, owner of the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, filed a complaint Friday in Kennebec County Superior Court against the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, after the commission refused to release the records.

The ethics commission says the documents are confidential by statute because they involve intelligence and investigative information, and because they have been referred to the Attorney General’s Office.

The appeal was made under the state’s Freedom of Access Act and sought an expedited hearing. No hearing was set as of Friday.

“If a record is public, it should remain public,” said Sigmund Schutz of Preti Flaherty, the attorney representing the newspaper and an attorney for the Maine Press Association. “The state’s position is, public records can be transformed into secret, confidential records if they’re pertinent to an investigation.”

The ethics commission is represented by the Attorney General’s Office, whose spokeswoman said it is policy not to comment on pending litigation. She said the state’s response will be filed in court.

The complaint says, “The Kennebec Journal and the public at large have the highest interest in public access to records shedding light on the state’s public campaign financing system, which funnels millions of dollars of public money to candidates seeking state elective office.”

The newspaper sought “official correspondence of commission staff and commissioners, including e-mail messages,” about Richardson’s application; all complaints about circulators working on behalf of Maine gubernatorial candidates in the 2010 campaign; a list of those seeking contributions for Richardson; records of checks and other financial transactions made on behalf of Richardson; an electronic, alphabetical list of qualifying contributors organized by town; copies of receipts for contributions signed by campaign workers or circulators; an electronic list of seed money donors; all campaign bank statements; and receipts for money order purchases made by Richardson’s campaign.

The lawsuit says the commission is in violation of the Freedom of Access Act by refusing to provide the records in electronic format, and seeks a judge’s order to disclose the records and pay legal costs.

In a letter denying access to most of the records sought, Paul Lavin, assistant director of the commission, offered the newspaper information about individuals “registered with the ethics commission as seeking contributions or circulating for qualifying contributions” for Richardson.

Lavin also offered a list of seed money donors to Richardson’s campaign.

Richardson reported to the commission in mid-April that two of his approximately 200 volunteers may have made mistakes in documenting contributions collected to qualify for public campaign funding.

The commission denied Richardson’s application for funds on April 22, citing rules violations in gathering the contributions.

Of the 3,597 contributions reported by Richardson, the commission accepted 3,168 as valid — short of the 3,250 required for public financing.

Qualifying contributions requires the following steps: a $5 donation by a registered voter who then signs a form; verification by a municipal register that the contributor is a registered voter; and an affirmation signed by the circulator.

Richardson, a Democrat from Brunswick who is a former speaker of the House and state economic development commissioner, quit the race on April 26.

Schutz said the commission issued a report indicating that there was wrongdoing in Richardson’s campaign, but did not disclose the names of the workers or the donors who were involved.

The complaint says that more than $6.8 million was paid to candidates for state offices in 2006, and that 81 percent of legislative candidates for state office were publicly financed under the state’s Clean Election Act in 2008.