North Woods Lawless II: From official denial to legislative hearings
My investigation of a controversial Maine Warden Service undercover operation and large-scale raid in the far northern Maine town of Allagash has gotten plenty of attention in the two weeks since it appeared, from personal slander from Maine Gov. Paul LePage to an announcement of legislative hearings on the issues raised in the piece. Having trouble keeping up? Here's a recap: May 8: "North Woods Lawless" appears, with sidebars on past problems with MWS undercover operations, their success in improving routine interactions with the public and their senior brass's flaunting of public records law and the entire, Kafka-esque email chain between ourselves, the wardens, our attorney, their attorney at the Attorney General's office, and the AG's public records ombudsman, Brenda Kielty. May 9: In the morning, Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville and co-chair of the legislative committee that oversees the wardens, tells me he is demanding answers from their boss, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock; he notes if he doesn't get answers, he may turn to another committee he sits on, Government Oversight, which has subpoena powers. I appear on WCSH-6 and WLBZ-2 to discuss the piece. At 5:30 that evening the wardens issue a short statement denouncing the piece as misleading (but without saying why), declaring that "the majority of Maine's law-abiding citizens" support the Allagash operation (without evidence), and promising a full response in article form in a few days. May 10: In the morning, Gov. LePage appears on a WVOM radio talk show, makes some slanderous statements about yours truly, proclaims the article to be a whole lot of nothing....and then proceeds to say how troubled he is by each and every major allegation and finding in the piece; LePage says his office is going to investigate. Several lawmakers call for legislative investigations of the allegations in the story, including Judiciary Committee co-chair Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, whose committee oversees public records law. Former Sportsmen's Alliance of Maine head George Smith weighs in, as does the Press Herald/Kennebec Journal editorial board. May 11: In the afternoon, Gov. LePage's communications director, Peter Steele contacts the Press Herald's Opinion Page Editor, Greg Kesitch, demanding he print a 2800 word response from the wardens in the next day's edition. "I will not accept a 3,000 word submission from anyone. I don't have the space and that's not what the opinion pages are for," Kesitch writes back. "If there are errors in the story you should communicate with the reporter and editor (copied here) to discuss corrections. The opinion pages is not where we correct errors of fact. I would be interested in a piece that defends the wardens' service policies, but that can be done in a regular length column."
Steele doesn't respond, but shortly thereafter, Gov. LePage issues an official press release ranting against, yes, Colin Woodard and declaring the Allagash investigation to be "one of the most outrageous examples of the Portland Press Herald’s complete and total lack of journalistic principles." He then goes on to an official, fact-free rant. "Let’s be perfectly clear: Colin Woodard is not a journalist; he is an activist and a novelist who never lets the facts get in the way of his fictionalized stories. Sadly, Woodard is the kind of guy the media elite celebrate as a Pulitzer Prize-worthy author." (For those just joining the program: I am a journalist; I've never written a novel; I've never published a story which was found to be incorrect; and I've never won a Pulitzer Prize as an author (though I was a Pulitzer finalist for my journalism this year.))
Shortly thereafter, the Maine Warden Service issues their 2800 word response to "North Woods Lawless" which makes a number of false claims, claims things I (accurately) reported sources saying as being things I myself said, and puts forward some details of their side of the story -- details they refused to share in the months we were reporting the story. We respond that evening with a detailed point-by-point response to some of MWS' more blatant falsehoods.
The Warden Service responds with a truly bizarre press release, one Mainers everywhere should read. In it, the wardens purport to speak for all the people of Maine, and denounce the story, saying that while it had "contributions by Colin Woodard" it "was produced by a new author, perhaps as another attempt at credibility." The Press Herald, the law enforcement agency declares, "has taken on a personality that no longer reflects Maine values. Maine people are different. We have strong core values. We respect our friends and neighbors. We tell the truth." The statement then goes on to make three substantive points, all of them untruthful: that the story didn't quote the judge in the Fryeburg case's fuller statement (it did, further down the piece); that by 5pm the paper hadn't reported a shooting incident in New Hampshire (it had, at 8:03 that morning) and that state police had issued a cease and disist order against one of our sources that afternoon for harassing a warden by telephone (which would be rather a strange thing to do, since said source had started his sentence at the York County Jail at 8:30 that morning and could make no outgoing calls for the next 22 days.) The wardens then refused to answer questions about the latter incident.
May 19: Lawmakers announce they will hold legislative hearings into the conduct of Warden Service undercover operations, with Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport saying "Folks deserve to have an understanding, to know what transpired." House Speaker Mike Eves, D-North Berwick, promises a "thorough inquiry." Sen. Davis says he will also call public records ombudsperson Brenda Kielty to testify about the public records side of the story. The wardens say they will cooperate. The hearings will be held in the next two weeks, legislative leaders say.
I am an award-winning journalist and author of American Nations, American Character, Ocean's End, The Lobster Coast, and The Republic of Pirates. I'm a staffer at the Portland Press Herald, where I won a 2012 George Polk Award for my investigative reporting and was named a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist.