Legislative leaders are moving cautiously on calls by their members for a formal inquiry into allegations of misconduct by the Maine Warden Service in undercover operations in both Aroostook and York counties.

Republican and Democratic leaders say they first want feedback from the chairman of the legislative committee that oversees the warden service, Sen. Paul T. Davis, R-Sangerville. He is scheduled to meet with Chandler Woodcock, commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, on Monday.

Spokesmen for House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said they are taking a wait-and-see approach before calling to reconvene a committee of the Legislature, which is currently adjourned, to conduct any formal inquiry.

Their responses came after the warden service disputed investigative reports this week by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram that found a pattern of controversial practices during undercover operations in York and Aroostook counties in recent years and in Oxford County more than a decade ago.

In each case, an undercover agent is accused of drinking and distributing large amounts of alcohol as he tried to induce hunters to violate state game laws.

DISAPPOINTED BY RESPONSE

Independent Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos of Friendship, the first lawmaker to call for an investigation this week, said Friday he was disappointed with the response by legislative leaders and would continue to demand an independent inquiry to answer questions about the warden service’s practices.

“I’m pressing it,” Evangelos said. “I’m not jumping to conclusions. I’m saying we need an inquiry to get some answers. This is how it’s done.”

Evangelos, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said he has reached out twice this week to the chairmen of his committee to also look into whether the warden service violated the state’s Freedom of Access Act by refusing to provide documents requested by the newspaper during its six-month investigation.

The newspaper published its first story on warden service operations on Sunday. Evangelos said the findings of that report, “North Woods Lawless,” were enough in themselves to justify an inquiry.

“I don’t want to take Woodcock’s word for it,” Evangelos said, referring to Davis’ upcoming meeting with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife commissioner.

Davis said Friday that he and Rep. Stanley Short Jr., D-Pittsfield, would both meet with Woodcock, and expected they may have a clearer course of action by the end of next week.

“We are going to do as good of an investigation as we can,” Davis said.

REALITY OR REALITY TV?

The report by investigative reporter Colin Woodard described game warden William Livezey’s two-year undercover operation in the northern Maine town of Allagash that culminated in 2014 with a dramatic, large-scale raid that law enforcement officers made against targeted hunters while being filmed for the “North Woods Law” reality TV series. The Portland Press Herald was subsequently contacted by targets of a similar undercover investigation in York County who said that Livezey first befriended them, then provided liquor to them and encouraged them to commit crimes they would not normally commit.

Gov. Paul LePage weighed in, calling Woodard’s report “one of the most outrageous examples of the Portland Press Herald’s complete and total lack of journalistic principles.” But LePage himself also called for an investigation during a radio broadcast while discussing the report.

Beth Ashcroft, the director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the Legislature’s investigative agency, said no one has yet contacted her office about conducting an inquiry. The office reports to the Government Oversight Committee, which meets Thursday.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, plans to speak over the weekend with Davis, who also sits on the committee, to discuss options. Katz said the committee could then revisit the issue on Thursday after Davis’ meeting with Woodcock.

Jim Cyr, a spokesman for Thibodeau, said the Senate president feels it’s too soon to take action on the question of whether the warden service acted improperly.

“I think he’s waiting to see what comes of the meeting between Sen. Davis, Rep. Short and the game wardens,” Cyr said of Thibodeau.

Lindsay Crete, a spokeswoman for Eves, said the House speaker is trying to determine who are the best people to talk to before deciding whether to support an inquiry. Crete also released a written statement on Eves’ behalf.

“These are serious allegations and I continue to look into available options for uncovering what actions did and did not take place,” Eves said in the written statement.

‘A POWDER KEG’

Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he has been inundated with calls and emails from people from York County who are outraged by the actions of the game wardens’ undercover investigation there.

“Holy smokes, it’s a powder keg,” Hobbins said, putting a reporter on hold several times Friday morning as other calls came in.

The Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over Freedom of Access Act questions involving state agencies, and he said he was very concerned by the response from the warden service, which failed to provide a number of public records the newspaper sought under the law.

“It looks like from my observations that there was a real attempt to stonewall,” Hobbins said.

Hobbins was unsure whether the Judiciary Committee should hold its own inquiry or whether a single inquiry should be conducted by another entity. He said he had been in touch with Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, the committee’s other co-chairman, and planned to speak with him again after Burns returns from vacation.

“This is huge,” Hobbins said of the concerns raised about the warden service. “The problem is, is this the right committee?”

 


Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: