Maine’s Speaker of the House on Thursday called on the Legislature’s Right to Know Advisory Committee to hold a public meeting to examine the Maine Warden Service’s conduct concerning Freedom of Access Act information requests from the Maine Sunday Telegram.

Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said in his letter dated June 9 that a meeting before the Right to Know Committee “is the next logical step in ensuring all government agencies are held appropriately accountable for satisfying our commitment to a transparent state that works for every Mainer.”

Eves noted in his letter that while a hearing last month before the Legislature’s Inland, Fisheries and Wildlife Committee was an appropriate first step to answer questions raised by the media, the IFW Committee does not have jurisdiction over Maine’s FOAA policies and procedures.

The newspaper says officials from the Maine Warden Service repeatedly refused to speak with a reporter for the Telegram’s May 8 investigation titled “North Woods Lawless,” which examined a warden service undercover operation in Allagash. Instead, the warden service issued terse answers to 24 written questions and then declined to respond to followup questions.

The newspaper’s six-month investigation detailed allegations that game wardens padded evidence, provided alcohol to people who were being investigated and invented events that did not occur during the two-year investigation, which resulted in fines for wildlife law and other violations and short jail terms for several individuals. An undercover agent provided guns, ammunition, transportation and a searchlight to one target of the probe, and shot a deer to encourage the subject to poach, the story found.

The warden service’s investigation culminated in a raid that was filmed for the “North Woods Law” television series.

After the Allagash story ran, numerous targets of another undercover operation in the York County town of Parsonsfield came forward with similar allegations, as did residents of Androscoggin, Lincoln, Penobscot and Washington counties.

The warden service and Gov. Paul LePage condemned the stories, reported and written by Colin Woodard, and said they contained “many inaccuracies.”

The newspaper says the warden service failed for months to provide requested public records, as required by law, and then inflated both the amount of time it would take to fulfill the requests and the cost of doing so.

“These accusations at the very least have created lingering questions and in some cases distrust regarding the Service’s established protocol and ability to fulfill FOAA requests,” wrote Eves, a Democrat. “These are very serious allegations raised by the Press Herald and have implications for public trust and in the effectiveness and strength of Maine’s Freedom of Access laws.”

Eves said a public meeting would help Right to Know committee members decide if there should be changes made to the state’s Freedom of Access law.

Maine Senate President Mike Thibodeau, a Republican, could not be reached for comment about Eves’ request Thursday night.

Cpl. John MacDonald, spokesman for the Maine Warden Service, did not respond to requests for comments about Eves’ actions.

The committee’s next regularly scheduled meeting is tentatively set for June 22 in Augusta. Whether Eves’ request will be added to the agenda had not been decided Thursday.

While Right to Know Committee members said they would be open to discussing the matter at a public meeting, they said their powers are limited.

Judy Meyer, a committee member who is also executive editor of the Lewiston Sun Journal, said the committee does not have investigative powers or the authority to subpoena witnesses. It can, however, make recommendations for new legislation or changes to existing law.

“I see no harm at all in having us talk about this issue,” Meyer said. “People are still concerned and shining a light on this certainly can’t hurt. It’s an important issue because it’s not going away.”

Meyer said the Right to Know Advisory Committee, which meets about four times a year, has a diverse membership that includes legislators, print and broadcast journalists, a representative of the Attorney General’s Office, a county commissioner and a police officer.

“We have some very spirited discussions,” Meyer said.

The committee is chaired by Sen. David C. Burns, a Republican from Whiting. Burns could not be reached for comment Thursday night, but the committee’s co-chair, State Rep. Kimberly Monaghan, a Democrat from Cape Elizabeth, said Eves’ request fits the type of issue the committee routinely considers.

“It makes sense for us to take this request up because it falls within our jurisdiction,” she said. “There are all sorts of unanswered questions and our committee is a good place to start.”

Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, serves as co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Hobbins said that bringing the issue before an advisory committee made up of citizens in addition to politicians is a move in the right direction.

“This is a big deal. This could be a major step for FOAA in Maine,” Hobbins said.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]


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