This story was updated at 10:10 a.m. 9/29/12

PORTLAND – The Portland Press Herald and the York County Coast Star say the state has not met the standard for imposing a gag order in the high-profile case of an alleged prostitution operation in Kennebunk.

The newspapers have gone to court to fight prosecutors’ proposal to ban discussion or dissemination of information in the case of Mark Strong Sr. of Thomaston, including evidence, strategy and the progress of the case.

A letter filed by the newspapers Friday in York County Superior Court argues that:

• The state has not met the standard for such confidentiality.

• The proposal is too broad

• The lack of a time limit could apply even to documents filed in the case or introduced into evidence.

“Access to proceedings and records in criminal cases implicates the highest public interest,” wrote Sigmund Schutz of Preti Flaherty, the lawyer for the newspapers. “The Supreme Court has said, ‘Openness … enhances both the basic fairness of the criminal trial and the appearance of fairness so essential to public confidence in the system.”

Strong, who is charged with promotion of prostitution, is the only defendant so far in the case. Prosecutors have indicated in a letter to the court that they intend to charge many of the alleged prostitution clients, and a police affidavit describes evidence that a Zumba instructor linked to Strong performed sex acts for money.

An affidavit in support of Strong’s arrest warrant describes some of the items that authorities found in February when they searched Alexis Wright’s fitness studio and nearby office space in Kennebunk and her home in Wells.

The affidavit says police found video footage of Wright having sex with men who were unaware they were being filmed, a ledger key with prices for various sexual acts and “meticulous” client records.

The document indicates that authorities have linked Strong and Wright through bank and other types of records.

Daniel Lilley, Strong’s lawyer, has said that Wright hired Strong to investigate Kennebunk police because she felt harassed by them. He has also said that Strong loaned Wright money for what he believed was a legitimate business.

Justice Joyce Wheeler directed prosecutors last week to craft a proposed protective order because of concerns about the dissemination of documents and other evidence from discovery, the pretrial fact-finding phase of the case.

Wheeler, who has since recused herself from the case, prohibited the parties from disseminating discovery to others before an order was issued.

Prosecutors have proposed two protective orders, with the latest citing material from a Press Herald article as justification for banning discussion of the case.

The article published Sept. 22 includes Lilley’s description of items related to the alleged clients that he received through the discovery process. Lilley said he had a spreadsheet that included names, occupations and information about services provided, and a list with information such as marital status, place of residence and number of children. No names from the spreadsheet or list were in the article.

“Defense counsel’s actions demonstrate the need for an order prohibiting both parties from commenting on the discovery or the case to any person but those individuals working on the case for the parties,” York County Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan and Assistant Attorney General Gregg Bernstein wrote in their motion. “Such an order will help to ensure that this matter moves forward without interfering with law enforcement, undermining the ability of the Court to empanel an impartial jury, or causing an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy of individuals named in the discovery.”

Lilley has filed a motion objecting the proposal on a number of grounds.

“The State has provided absolutely no compelling reason why such a draconian order is warranted in this single-count misdemeanor case,” he wrote.

His comment in the Press Herald article about the “johns,” Lilley wrote, “does not go to the substance of the case nor does it reveal anything that was not already in the public sphere.”

Bernstein declined to comment Friday. McGettigan did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

akim@pressherald.com

Twitter: AnnKimPPH