AUGUSTA — Lawmakers who oversee the Maine Warden Service will hold hearings in the next two weeks to review the agency’s conduct, following reports by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram about controversial undercover operations and raids conducted by wardens in York and Aroostook counties.

Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, co-chairman of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, said Thursday that he has been given informal verbal consent from legislative leaders to hold the hearings while the Legislature is out of session.

Davis said Thursday that he has sat through hours of meetings already this week to go over the first of the newspaper’s stories about the warden service’s overlapping, two-year undercover investigations into poaching in the two counties.

He said that during a private meeting with Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock, he went over each of his concerns line by line in the article, “North Woods Lawless,” published in the Sunday Telegram.

Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said that since the Legislature is currently out of session, he and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, need to receive formal written requests for a hearing by the co-chairmen of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee.

“Folks deserve to have an understanding, to know what transpired,” Thibodeau said in a phone interview.

The warden service issued a statement saying it planned to cooperate with the legislators holding the hearing.

“In the coming weeks, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will be working with the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee to review operational details involving our investigative unit,” Cpl. John MacDonald said in an email to the Press Herald Thursday night.

“The department stands firmly behind our previous statements in response to recent stories containing accusations that attempted to erode the good work of our undercover investigative team,” MacDonald said. “We accept the opportunity to review our work practices and look forward to a positive outcome.”

Gov. Paul LePage’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Thibodeau said he expected the hearings to be scheduled within the next week or two, and that Woodcock and Col. Joel Wilkinson, head of the warden service, would be called to answer questions.

“I think that’s the appropriate step,” Thibodeau said. “I don’t think we’re at the point where we’re going to be subpoenaing people.”

NEED FOR ‘A THOROUGH INQUIRY’

Davis said he also would ask Brenda Kielty, the public records ombudsman at the state Attorney General’s Office, to appear before the committee. The newspaper filed three complaints with Kielty after the warden service failed to release documents that were requested under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

Eves said he and Thibodeau spoke about the issue Thursday and agreed to move forward with an inquiry before the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee.

“I believe we have a responsibility to conduct a thorough inquiry which will help us identify what happened,” Eves said in a written statement. “President Thibodeau and I have spoken and have both agreed the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee is the appropriate venue to handle this matter.”

At the center of the warden service controversy is one undercover warden, William Livezey. He has been accused by the targets of three separate investigations of drinking excessively in their presence, plying suspected scofflaw hunters with alcohol before urging them to commit crimes – such as driving deer, shooting deer out of season and carrying a loaded gun in a car – and committing some of the offenses himself for which the subjects of his investigations were later prosecuted. Most of the subjects pleaded guilty.

Davis spoke about holding hearings on the matter after an unrelated meeting Thursday of the Government Oversight Committee, on which he also sits. He said he had received many calls from Mainers complaining about the wardens’ conduct.

ACCUSATIONS AND OBJECTIONS

Last week, some legislators speculated that hearings on the matter could be held before the Government Oversight Committee because it has the power to subpoena witnesses who may otherwise be unwilling to speak.

But the co-chairmen of the oversight committee – Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston – said they both agree that the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee is the appropriate venue for the hearings.

Rep. Robert Duchesne, D-Old Town, who is co-chairman of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee and also sits on the oversight committee, said that if the first hearings are inconclusive, a second committee could take up the issue.

The Sunday Telegram published its initial report on the game wardens’ raid and arrests in the northern town of Allagash on May 8. Several of those charged accused Livezey of a number of improprieties, including padding evidence, providing alcohol to targets, and inventing events that did not take place.

One woman’s home-canned peaches were improperly seized as evidence and, she says, never returned. Charges were later dropped against the woman, Hope Kelly, but wardens contacted her seasonal employer, resulting in her not being rehired.

The raid that concluded the two-year investigation, dubbed “Operation Red Meat,” occurred on a winter’s night and involved 30 game wardens and a number of Maine State Police troopers. The raid was filmed by two crews for a reality TV series, “North Woods Law,” which later aired the episode.

In the days after that report, both Gov. LePage and the warden service sought to undermine the credibility of the reporter who wrote it, Colin Woodard.

OTHER INVESTIGATIONS UNDER FIRE

But as those attacks were underway, numerous people came forward who had been arrested in a similar investigation centered in the York County town of Parsonsfield. They said the same undercover agent had engaged in the same conduct with them, including pressing them to drink alcohol with him and driving after drinking.

The agent, Livezey, also had been accused of similar behavior in an Oxford County investigation in 2003 and 2004 that concluded in a ruling by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court that his conduct might have been “repugnant to criminal justice” but not so outrageous as to rise to the level of improper entrapment.

The warden service has refused the newspaper’s interview requests, failed to fully comply with a public records request and refused to provide an unredacted copy of its undercover operations policy, even though earlier versions of the policy had been made public in the past. Wardens responded to some written questions, but refused to answer follow-up questions.

Wilkinson, the colonel who heads the service, issued a news release May 13 on the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife website accusing Woodard and the Press Herald/Telegram of “ongoing character assault.”

“It is quite evident the paper has an agenda. A reporter could go anywhere in the state of Maine or across the country and find defendants in any case, whether it is drug busts or prostitution rings, and find those that have been convicted who have a story to tell about how their lives have been impacted because the police held them accountable for their poor decisions,” Wilkinson said in the release.

Wilkinson also said police had served a cease harassment order on one of the targets of the York County investigation who pleaded guilty to the offense of driving deer and was beginning a 22-day jail sentence. He was accused of making harassing phone calls to Livezey.