AUGUSTA — The head of the Maine Warden Service on Wednesday endured a barrage of questions from legislators about how wardens handled an undercover investigation that resulted in convictions for poaching and felony possession of firearms.

Col. Joel Wilkinson told the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, which has jurisdiction over the service, that his employees acted properly and within the law while repeatedly disputing information in a report by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram published in early May.

The committee’s Senate chairman, Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, called on Wilkinson, as well as Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock and the state’s ombudsman for public records, Brenda Kielty, to address the committee following the newspaper’s report.

The meeting Wednesday excluded comments from members of the public in attendance and was confined to a format in which Davis read the newspaper’s report — written by Colin Woodard — in portions, pausing to allow committee members to question Wilkinson and Woodcock.

Wilkinson repeatedly noted that officers in the Warden Service and executive branch officials in Gov. Paul LePage’s administration, suggested he only answer Woodard’s questions in writing. He confirmed that a meeting with newspaper staff prior to the report’s publication was abruptly canceled, saying state officials believed there would be “no value” in that conversation.

Wilkinson defended the actions of an undercover game warden, whose tactics in investigations in Aroostook and York counties have been called into question, and said he had suspended all undercover investigations out of concern for officer safety.

Among other things, the warden in the case was criticized by those he was investigating for taking part in crimes, including drinking while hunting and shooting deer at night.

Wilkinson said he had no intention of investigating alleged wrongdoing by the officer in question based on the newspaper’s report. 

“I’m not going to put my officer under investigation for a false narrative,” he said, noting that the convictions from the sting have been upheld by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, the state’s highest court.

Wilkinson said the warden in question, Bill Livezey, was only playing a role as part of his job investigating poaching and other fish and game violations.

“He’s a Christian man,” Wilkinson said. “He doesn’t drink, period — unless he’s working.”

Wilkinson also said, “No covert operative is going to get falling-down drunk …” and said Livezey did “a pretty good job” fitting in with a band of people who were “poachers and partiers.”

Livezey, in a letter to the Bangor Daily News, said people who do not understand undercover operations may not understand why undercover operatives do what they do. He noted that with his cover blown, his career in law enforcement was in jeopardy.

“I hate the betraying aspect of covert investigations, the suspects in my investigations that I have befriended so I could infiltrate the group,” Livezey wrote. “I have always loved Maine’s fish and wildlife. I have always enjoyed working for the honest sportsmen in Maine and catching the really intentional violator.”

Wilkinson on Wednesday told the committee his agency was committed to protecting the state’s valuable fish and game resources and that poaching was widespread throughout Maine.

Undercover operations were often the best way to catch game thieves. He said that since the newspaper story, many Mainers have contacted him to thank the wardens for the dangerous work they do.

“Poaching is rampant statewide,” Wilkinson said. “If there is a way to do it, there is somebody trying to do it.”

But lawmakers, including Davis, said they had been contacted by Mainers, many of whom were infuriated by the tactics detailed in Woodard’s newspaper story.

Woodcock, a former high school English teacher and basketball coach, took his time at the microphone to further discredit the newspaper’s report, calling it a “fabrication” and a “good story” but devoid of facts.

Woodcock declined to comment following the meeting Wednesday, and Wilkinson said only that he felt the Warden Service had conveyed the facts to the committee and, “The truth is easy to tell.”

Cliff Schechtman, executive editor of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, defended Woodard’s reporting.

“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,” Schechtman said. “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.” 

Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, who have oversight over the state’s open records laws and who attended the meeting Wednesday, questioned the nature of the proceedings.

State Rep. Kimberly Monaghan, D-Cape Elizabeth, said the Warden Service’s refusal to provide answers to the newspaper was another example of the LePage administration’s tactic of withholding information, not only from the public but from the Legislature.

“As members of the Judiciary Committee, we really don’t see the value in a one-sided hearing such as this,” Monaghan said following Wednesday’s meeting.

“(The wardens) even admit that a lot of this is being relegated by the executive branch and I just don’t understand how an official or the head of a public agency can refuse to answer questions about said agency,” she said. “It’s a bigger question than just the wardens’ investigation.”

Davis, the Senate chairman of the committee and a retired state trooper, said his personal practice was to give the media and the public as much information as possible. He noted that he frequently stood on his front lawn to answer questions from the media.

“I can’t answer for what comes out of other parts of state government,” Davis said, “but I’ve been around here for a while and I’ve had my door open for a long time.”

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