AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage has traveled widely in the past six months, from meetings or conferences in the White House, California and Texas to trade missions in Iceland and Finland. But how much taxpayers are spending on the far-flung travels by the governor, his staff and security team is a mystery.

The Portland Press Herald submitted Freedom of Access Act requests to LePage’s office in March and December of 2017 for public records of travel expenditures by the governor and his staff, but those requests have simply been shuffled from bureaucrat to bureaucrat in the administration.

The Governor’s Office provided only a generic summary of travel costs, showing that he and his staff spent just shy of $15,000 on four trips to the Washington area last spring. When the security team’s expenses are included, the total travel costs are $35,000. But nearly 11 months after the newspaper’s request for travel receipts was filed, the information still has not been released.

Maine State Police handle expenses for the governor’s security team, and in May it took the agency just 22 days to fulfill a Press Herald request for security travel expenses from Feb. 1 through May 3. The records showed that the team sometimes paid as much as $750 per night – for rooms at exclusive hotels in downtown Washington, D.C., including the Trump International.

However, when the newspaper filed a request in December for security travel expenses from May 4 to Nov. 30, state police said they would need up to six months and a fee of up to $350 to produce the records.

Christopher Parr, the attorney for Maine State Police who handles public records requests, offered no explanation of why it was going to take his agency eight times as long to respond to the second request for agents’ travel costs.

Under the Freedom of Access Act, a public agency must respond within five days if it is going to reject a request for public records, but there is no specific deadline for producing records, other than “within a reasonable time.”

The Press Herald’s requests for LePage’s travel spending records were submitted to the governor’s communications team and apparently referred to Brent Davis, an attorney in LePage’s office. Davis sent the newspaper a response in May.

“We will begin reviewing our documents for records that are responsive to your request,” Davis wrote. “We do require a reasonable period to go through our records to determine when we may be able to provide any responsive documents.

“Once we make this determination,” he continued, “we will provide you with a good faith, non-binding estimate of the time and cost of complying with your request. We may only respond to your request to the extent that the Office of the Governor has custody of the requested materials.”

At some point, the responsibility for fulfilling the records requests was apparently transferred to William H. Thompson, an employee in the governor’s Office of Policy Management. In December, nine months after the request was submitted, Thompson said in an email that he did not have access to the travel receipts. He referred the newspaper to David Heidrich, within the Department of Administration and Financial Affairs.

Heidrich said in a Jan. 23 email to the newspaper that he was learning of the requests for travel receipts for the first time.

Although the costs to taxpayers of LePage’s travels remain unknown, traces of his activities can be gleaned from a handful of news releases issued by his office or from posts made to his official Twitter account. He traveled several times to Washington, D.C., to appear with President Trump or Vice President Mike Pence, and he also went to California, Texas, Iceland, Finland and Canada.

Internal Revenue Service records show that taxpayers were reimbursed for a portion of LePage’s travel costs by the Republican Party, which reported paying the state treasurer $4,506 in September and another $3,650 in November. The records do not disclose the locations or purposes of the trips.

IRS filings by the Republican Governors Association also show that group wrote two reimbursement checks to Maine for the reporting period between Jan. 1 and June 30. On March 27, the RGA paid $2,172 to Maine’s treasury office for “travel reimbursement” followed by a $4,172 “travel reimbursement” May 31. The IRS filing does not specify what travel was being reimbursed, however.

Sigmund Schutz, an attorney with the firm Preti Flaherty whose clients include the Press Herald, said the delay in the request for the travel records violates the principles of transparent and open government that are the basis of Maine’s FOAA.

“It’s a lack of either respect for it, understanding of it or it’s an intention to hide from the public and do as much as possible in secret for as long as possible,” Schutz said, “and make it as hard as possible for the people to find out what’s going on.”

He noted that long delays also limit the public’s ability to react or respond in the formation of public policy.

“This (law) was not enacted for historians researching what government was up to months or years ago – but for newspapers, concerned citizens, and others who care about what public officials and agencies are doing right now, yesterday, and the day before,” Schutz said. “Old information just isn’t as useful. These delays mean that important information will be kept secret until it is too late for the public to voice concern, provide input, or cast an informed vote.”

It’s not just media outlets that have trouble getting public records from the LePage administration.

Andy Schmidt, a Portland-based attorney, had to sue the administration last May after a long delay over a public records request for information stemming from federal lawsuits that LePage had joined individually against the administration of former President Obama.

Schmidt said LePage’s staff eventually settled the lawsuit by turning over the records. Without the suit, he said, he would likely still be waiting for the information he requested.

“The way to get the governor to follow the disclosure laws is to file a lawsuit when the office doesn’t respond,” Schmidt said. “That is unfortunate, because the law was designed to give ordinary citizens easy access to information, and lawsuits are confusing and expensive for non-lawyers to initiate.”

As to LePage’s travel records, the Press Herald last heard from the administration on Jan. 30. That’s when Heidrich, in the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, sent an email acknowledging receipt of the records requests. He noted that the records could be withheld, in part or in full, as allowed for under exemptions in the law.

“DAFS will notify you, within a reasonable time, of a date and time for review and copying of the documents (or by transmitting copies to you) not protected from disclosure,” Heidrich wrote on Jan. 30. “Should any of the requested documents be withheld, we will identify the reason for not disclosing them.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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