Monday, May 9, 2016

North Woods Lawless

An investigation I've been working on for the past six months and more went to print in the Maine Sunday Telegram yesterday: "North Woods Lawless," which probes a controversial two-year undercover investigation and dramatic raid by the Maine Warden Service in the remote northern Maine town of Allagash. The raid was filmed by the Animal Planet television series "North Woods Law," leading some in the town to suspect the wardens of playing to the cameras.

In the story, residents allege the undercover agent padded evidence, invented incidents, and gave alcohol to suspects. We also report that the agent provided guns, ammunition, transportation, and a searchlight to a man he was enticing to night poach on nine nights, an that by his own account the agent shot and killed the first deer. Wardens also improperly seized a 64-year old woman's home canned fruits an vegetables and, by her account, never returned most of them; after all charges were dropped against her, wardens called her seasonal employer, an event that resulted in her not being rehired.

Meanwhile, the Warden Service refused to be interviewed, canceling an in-person appointment hours after scheduling it, and ultimately refused to answer written questions as well, referring all contact through their attorney, an assistant Attorney General. They also spurned public records law, failing to provide their full correspondence about area filming with the producers of "North Woods Law" and leading to multiple complaints to the state's public records ombudsman, who is awkwardly also an assistant Attorney General. We posted the entire email chain of our six-months-and-counting effort to secure compliance online for your enjoyment.

The story package also includes two other sidebars, one on apparently successful reforms of day-to-day operations by Chief Warden Joel Wilkinson, the other on the service's history of undercover operations controversies.

In tomorrow's Portland Press Herald, I have this follow up story, wherein the state senator who co-chairs the warden's legislative oversight committee says he is demanding answers from the warden's boss, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock, intimating that he might call for a formal investigation if he is not satisfied with their response. There's also a statement from the Wardens -- posted at 5:30 this evening -- insisting the article is inaccurate and also, strangely, that the "majority of law-abiding Maine citizens and visitors" are "wholeheartedly" in support of their actions in the Allagash. They promise not to answer questions, but rather to present an article of their own, which I expect they will want the news media to publish.

Meanwhile, the story has been picked up by the Associated Press, Maine Public Broadcasting, and Maine's largest television broadcasts, NBC affiliates WCSH-6 (Portland) an WLBZ-2 (Bangor), who had me as a guest this evening.

This story, as we say at the Press Herald, will be updated.

[Update: 5/21/16: A day-by-day, blow-by-blow update of the past two weeks of "North Woods Lawless" can be found here.]

[Update: 5/31/16: And more updates here.]

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