AUGUSTA — The chief of the Maine Warden Service said he has stopped all undercover operations, but will not investigate the conduct of an undercover game warden who has been accused of padding evidence, providing alcohol to suspects and violating wildlife laws to entice suspects to commit crimes.

Col. Joel Wilkinson said during a hearing before the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee Wednesday that he has “no intention” of second-guessing the undercover agent, William Livezey, who has come under fire for undercover investigations in Aroostook, York and four other Maine counties.

Wilkinson also said that the warden service does not have any current undercover operations and has suspended them since a Maine Sunday Telegram report, “North Woods Lawless,” was published that called Livezey’s conduct into question.

He said when the Portland Press Herald identified Livezey and published his photo, it exposed him to harassment. The warden service, however, had included that photo in the public court documents it filed in the Aroostook County investigation and used it as evidence against one of the suspects.

“They have ramped emotions unfairly and unnecessarily,” Wilkinson said of the newspaper.

Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock also told lawmakers Wednesday that raising questions about Livezey’s investigation was a “fabricated” story that makes “nice reading” but has no basis in fact.

Woodcock, Wilkinson and Brenda Kielty, public records ombudsman at the state Attorney General’s Office, were all called to appear before the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee in response to an outcry after the May 8 article by reporter Colin Woodard.

The committee did not accept any input from the public, from the media that raised the issues or from interested lawmakers who sat in the audience.

At one point, a member of the audience stood and demanded to be heard, but the chairman of the committee, Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, quickly called for a security officer to silence the man.

Kielty was called to the hearing to answer questions about the newspaper’s requests for information from the warden service about its undercover operations. Several members of the Judiciary Committee have expressed interest in reviewing the issue, but the committee chairmen have not sought permission from legislative leaders to hold a hearing.

State Rep. Kim Monaghan, a Democrat from Cape Elizabeth who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday’s proceeding was not really a hearing.

“It wasn’t a hearing because there were not two sides. It was a one-sided hearing,” said Monaghan, who sat in the audience.

After publication of the initial article May 8, numerous targets of other investigations conducted by Livezey began coming forward with similar allegations of misconduct by the same undercover agent. Subsequent articles documented claims of misconduct in investigations in several other Maine counties.

Some of the people in the audience at the hearing had been among the targets of the game warden’s investigations.

Gary McCabe, who was the target of an operation in Milford, said the hearing was a disappointment. He said he thought the committee would examine problems with the warden service.

“It was definitely a letdown,” he said afterward. McCabe, who said he had never poached before and didn’t do so on the night he was arrested for night hunting, was ultimately charged with nine violations.

WARDEN CHIEF DEFENDS AGENT

The committee focused only on the Aroostook County undercover operation and asked no questions about investigations in other counties, although Livezey was the undercover agent in all of them.

One committee member, Sen. Susan Deschambault, D-York, questioned Wilkinson on whether superior officers would investigate Livezey, given the misconduct claims against him.

Wilkinson responded that he would not investigate Livezey. He acknowledged that details from Woodard’s article would be upsetting if true, but insisted that they were false.

“I’m not going to put my officer under investigation because someone misprints false allegations,” Wilkinson said.

Despite allegations that Livezey provided alcohol to suspects and was often drinking himself, Wilkinson described Livezey as “a Christian man who doesn’t drink, period.” He then paused before adding, “Unless he’s working.” The comment drew laughter from the audience.

Woodcock went a step further, calling Woodard’s reporting and the six-month Maine Sunday Telegram investigation “fabricated, distorted.”

“The reactions to this story have astounded me,” Woodcock said. “Today we are here for facts.”

Cliff Schechtman, executive editor of the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, said the assertion that the Telegram’s investigation was fabricated is absurd.

“One of the most respected journalists in the state spent six months reviewing thousands of pages of documents, many of them from court files and others from the warden service’s own reports. He also interviewed scores of people to compile this investigation. The idea that Colin Woodard ‘fabricated’ the story doesn’t pass the straight-face test,” Schechtman said.

The May 8 article documented a backlash to Livezey’s Allagash investigation in which he worked undercover for two years pretending to be Bill Fried of Pennsylvania, befriending local residents and enticing them to commit wildlife crimes. The operation culminated with a massive 2014 raid that was filmed by a television crew for the Animal Planet series “North Woods Law.”

INITIAL REPORT SPAWNED SIMILAR STORIES

Local residents complained about what they said was an outsized operation, considering the nature of the charges. They were perhaps most upset that the wardens had confiscated a 64-year-old woman’s home-canned peaches and, according to her, failed to return most of them.

After the story ran, numerous targets of another undercover operation in the York County town of Parsonsfield came forward with similar allegations. People from investigations in Androscoggin, Lincoln, Penobscot and Washington counties also came forward with similar complaints that Livezey drank 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 ultimately took plea bargains.

Livezey previously had been accused of misconduct 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.

Many members of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee used Wednesday’s hearing to chastise the Press Herald for reporting on claims about the undercover investigations and to praise the warden service.

“They are doing a good job out there for us to feel secure,” said Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Kennebec, in support of the Maine Warden Service. “I think this is a situation that has put an officer in a bad situation. I think we have to be careful how far we go with this.”

“I feel this article was blown way out of proportion,” said Rep. Stephen Wood, R-Greene, referring to the Maine Sunday Telegram article.

Wood then said to Woodcock and Wilkinson, “I think you are doing a good job.”

“It’s a terrible thing that the undercover agent’s identity and picture was put out by the Portland Press Herald,” said Rep. Stanley Short Jr., D-Pittsfield. “It has ruined the individual officer’s career.”

“This was not only an attack by the story of one officer, but of all law enforcement officers in the agency,” Deschambault said. “This hearing is a sober exercise and focused on fact finding.”

LEGISLATIVE CRITIC: ‘IT’S A WHITEWASH’

However, one lawmaker in the audience, Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship, said that Wednesday’s hearing was one-sided and ineffective as a fact-finding inquiry, since the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee members would not allow members of the public to speak.

“All that was missing was the pompoms and cheerleaders,” Evangelos said. “It’s disgraceful. It’s a whitewash.”

Evangelos serves on the Judiciary Committee and has pushed for his committee to investigate the warden service’s denial of public records the newspaper sought as part of its investigation, particularly all emails between the warden service and the “North Woods Law” TV series.

Davis, the chairman of the committee, led Wednesday’s meeting from start to finish, opening by reading aloud from the May 8 article, several paragraphs at a time. He paused to let committee members ask questions of Wilkinson, Woodcock and Kielty, then resumed reading the article to its end.

Davis had met privately in the past couple of weeks with the three government officials to go through the same article line by line, much as the full committee did Wednesday.

Davis also read aloud 37 questions that had been posed to the committee by members of the Judiciary Committee, who have oversight of the state’s compliance with public records laws.

The Press Herald had filed three formal complaints with Kielty against the Maine Warden Service for failing to comply or inadequately complying with the Freedom of Access Act requests for information.

“It has been very adversarial and very contentious,” Kielty said of the exchanges between the newspaper and the warden service. “It should have been resolved a long time ago.”

Wilkinson acknowledged during the hearing that the warden service had consulted with Gov. Paul LePage’s administration before “North Woods Lawless” was published and decided to stop answering the newspaper’s questions because they believed Woodard intended to write an intentionally damaging article.

At the conclusion of the hearing Wednesday, Davis said his committee has no plans for further hearings. He said the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee will look into the allegations of misconduct in undercover operations in York County and elsewhere on its own.

A chairman of the Judiciary Committee – Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco – said after Wednesday’s hearing concluded that he was hopeful that his committee would take up the public records issues at a later meeting.