Lawmakers who oversee the Maine Warden Service have scheduled a June 1 hearing to question government leaders about allegations that the warden service padded evidence and provided alcohol to suspects to entice them to commit crimes during undercover operations in York and Aroostook counties.

Sen. Paul Davis Sr., R-Sangerville, co-chairman of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, said three people will be called before the committee at the State House in Augusta starting at 9 a.m. to speak about the accusations: Col. Joel Wilkinson, head of the warden service; Chandler Woodcock, commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife; and Brenda Kielty, public records ombudsman at the state Attorney General’s Office.

“It is a committee hearing, not a meeting at which the public will be speaking,” Davis said Wednesday, shortly after establishing the hearing agenda. “The committee will do the questioning.”

Some members of the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over public records law, have questioned whether the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee hearing will go far enough to determine whether the warden service complied with the Maine Freedom of Access Act when the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram requested information about the covert operations.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said he planned to issue a memo encouraging members of the Judiciary Committee to attend next Wednesday’s hearing as spectators.

“The meeting of IFW will help answer some of the critical questions that have arisen on this issue and determine next steps,” Eves said in a written statement.

The newspaper began reporting on the warden service’s covert operations in a May 8 article, “North Woods Lawless,” about a dramatic 2014 raid in Allagash that was documented by a television crew for the Animal Planet series “North Woods Law.” The raid followed a two-year investigation – code-named “Operation Red Meat” – by the warden service to delve into reports of hunters violating state game laws.

Davis said he felt comfortable that the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee could conduct the inquiry on its own, since Gov. Paul LePage’s office and the warden service have agreed to cooperate.

“We plan to go over the news article line by line,” Davis said.

INVESTIGATION METHOD QUESTIONED

He said the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee does not plan to ask anyone from the newspaper or from the public to speak at the hearing, although they are welcome to attend.

Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, an independent from Friendship and a member of the Judiciary Committee, questioned the transparency of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee’s planned meeting since Davis, the Senate chairman, already has met in private with the people the committee plans to question to go over the issues.

“It’s certainly a strange way to conduct an investigation,” Evangelos said. “There is no public hearing scheduled. No members of the public, no alleged victims of entrapment, no members of the press who have been stiffed on their FOAA requests, no criminal defense attorneys, nor other interested parties will be allowed to speak or participate. This is simply not fair or adequate.”

After the initial newspaper report about the Aroostook County raid, numerous targets of anotheran undercover operation in the York County town of Parsonsfield came forward with similar allegations that also centered on one undercover warden, William Livezey.

He has been accused by the investigation targets in both Aroostook and York counties 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.

Livezey previously had been accused of the same kind of behavior in an undercover operation in Oxford County in 2003 and 2004, prompting a decision by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court that found his behavior may have been “repugnant” but did not rise to the level that the criminal charges stemming from his investigation needed to be dismissed.

DISAGREEMENT ON JUDICIARY PANEL

As the newspaper investigated Livezey’s activities in Allagash, it sought public records under the Maine Freedom of Access Act, including email exchanges between the warden service and representatives of the “North Woods Law” TV series.

The warden service often failed to respond to requests for public records until pressured by the newspaper’s attorney. After numerous exchanges between the attorney and the Attorney General’s Office, the warden service provided time and cost estimates needed to complete the records requests.

For some requests, the warden service sought payment before it would produce the records, which is a violation of the law if the cost is less than $100 – which it was. At another point, the warden service responded to the newspaper’s attorney with an estimate that it would take 46 hours of staff time billed at $15 an hour – or $690 – to produce a set of emails.

The newspaper filed three complaints with Kielty, the ombudsman, after it was unable to obtain the records it sought.

Because the Judiciary Committee has oversight of public records access, Evangelos and at least two rank-and-file members of the committee have filed written requests for the panel to have a formal role in the warden service investigation.

“Everyone who has a stake in this deserves to be heard,” Evangelos said.

The two other members of the Judiciary Committee who wrote letters to their leaders to hold hearings on the allegations are Reps. Kim Monaghan, D-Cape Elizabeth, and Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell.

The Senate chairman of the Judiciary Committee, David Burns, R-Whiting, said he has read the letters from his members, but he thinks Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is the appropriate committee to handle the issue.

“I have no plans of holding a hearing at this point,” Burns said. “I think it will properly play out at the hearing on June 1. I think this is the necessary process for this to take place.”

The House chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, plans to accept Eves’ invitation to attend Wednesday’s hearing and pose questions to members of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee to ask on his behalf.

“Having us invited, I think that was appropriate,” Hobbins said. “I think it’s really important that this isn’t sidestepped.”

 


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