Top officials at the Maine Warden Service flouted public records laws throughout the Maine Sunday Telegram’s six-month investigation of the agency’s undercover operation in the town of Allagash.

On Nov. 2, the Telegram made a routine public records request for all correspondence between the warden service and the producers of the reality TV series “North Woods Law” related to filming in Aroostook County over a 3½-year period, in an effort to resolve suspicions that wardens were playing for the cameras when they organized a major raid on the tiny town.

Colonel Joel Wilkinson of the Maine Warden Service.

Colonel Joel Wilkinson of the Maine Warden Service. 2009 Press Herald File Photo/John Patriquin

At first, the agency said the request would take six hours and less than three weeks to fulfill. But the effort became a Kafkaesque odyssey during which Chief Warden Col. Joel Wilkinson and other senior officials systematically resisted complying with the law through a variety of tactics, including feigned incompetence, the imposition of unlawful conditions, massive omissions of documents from the period when most “North Woods Law” filming in the area took place, the unlawful redaction of what few materials were provided, demands for the payment of wildly inflated fees, and simple foot-dragging and stonewalling.

In response to a separate request for the agency’s written policies on the conduct of undercover operations, the warden service produced a 16-page document with the text almost entirely redacted, on the grounds that the policies are a secret. In the past, the warden service had released current versions of the policy without any redactions.

“It shouldn’t take months, repeated reminders, hiring a lawyer, and hundreds of dollars in fees to get access to a few e-mails between the warden service and producers of a reality TV show,” says Sigmund Schutz, the media attorney who represents the Telegram. “The delays and costs imposed by the warden service raise questions about whether it is trying to hide something from the public and, just as important, whether it is committed to openness and transparency as required by Maine law.”

Despite the involvement of the public records ombudsman at the state Attorney General’s Office, an assistant attorney general and the newspaper’s attorney, the warden service provided just 35 emails, only eight of them from the months when Engel Entertainment did most of its filming in the county and when the Allagash raid was planned and executed and the footage edited for broadcast. Previous public records requests had shown that Engel and the wardens correspond frequently to organize, edit and censor filming in the field, typically generating a dozen or more emails a month during production and post-production.

The agency also unlawfully demanded prepayment from the Telegram before producing documents, arbitrarily redacted the identities of correspondents on the few it produced – including mundane ones such as Denise Duperre, the “Divas Snowgear Brand Ambassador 2014-2015” – and tried to exact wildly inflated fees: $690 to produce the emails between the two entities. By contrast, more complicated and voluminous public records requests to other public entities – including the governor’s office, the Public Utilities Commission, and the departments of education and environmental protection – have cost roughly one-third as much, even while generating hundreds of pages of documents from numerous officials.

After producing 29 emails – none of them from the year surrounding the Allagash raid – Warden Capt. Shon Theriault declared in late December that the service’s personnel had “met the intent” of the public records laws by searching one official’s account for two terms, “Aroostook” and “the County.” He declined to address the situation further.

The Telegram subsequently filed two formal complaints with public records ombudsman Brenda Kielty at the Attorney General’s Office.

In response, the wardens reduced some cost estimates and released a handful of additional emails, but maintained in a March 17 memo that providing the emails of individual wardens would be complicated, expensive and time-consuming. The response said that each warden would have to travel “to a state broadband connection,” connect his accounts with technicians at the state’s Office of Information Technology and transfer relevant emails to another network drive for evaluation at headquarters. It was not clear why the wardens could not simply forward the relevant emails to their supervisors in Augusta, as other state agencies do.

More than six months after the Telegram filed its public request, the warden service still has not released additional correspondence.