AUGUSTA — A top state Democratic leader is calling on the Legislature’s Right to Know Advisory Committee to look into concerns that the Maine Warden Service either delayed or ignored requests for public records under the state’s Freedom of Access Act.

On Thursday, outgoing Speaker of the House Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, sent a letter to the co-chairs of the advisory committee, which includes both lawmakers and citizen representatives.  

Issues about how the Warden Service handled FOAA requests stem from an investigative report by the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald on methods used by the service when it conducted an undercover operation in Allagash in 2013. The report also called into question the relationship wardens maintained with the producers of the cable television reality show “North Woods Law,” which airs on Animal Planet.

Under FOAA the newspaper also requested copies of communications between the producers of the show and Warden Service officials.

Warden Service Chief Col. Joel Wilkinson answered questions about the sting operation, refuting parts of the report earlier this month in a hearing before the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, which has jurisdiction over the service. But testimony at that hearing was limited to just Wilkinson, the commissioner for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and the state’s FOAA ombudsman.

“While bringing these issues to the IFW legislative committee was the appropriate first step to start to answer questions raised by the press and community members regarding the Warden Service’s undercover investigation in Allagash, the IFW Committee’s members do not have jurisdiction over Maine’s FOAA policies and procedures,” Eves wrote.

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“As such, in order to identify appropriate areas of policy that may need revision to address these and other concerns, I urge the Right to Know Committee to hold a public meeting regarding the Maine Warden Service’s conduct in fulfilling FOAA requests submitted by the Sunday Telegram.”

Other lawmakers have suggested the issue go before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the FOAA. The advisory committee can recommend legislation but does not have jurisdictional powers.

On Thursday, Rep. Jeff Evangelos, an independent from Friendship and member of the Judiciary Committee, said Eves’ request was welcomed, but additional hearings to address a range of other issues the report highlighted were needed.

“It’s a start,” Evangelos said, “but we still need a hearing that deals with the law enforcement practices, criminal procedure, civil rights and entrapment, and the Warden Service relationship with the television show that may have undermined the integrity of law enforcement and the legal system.”

Evangelos said the Right to Know Advisory Committee can produce documents, information and emails, “that will allow us to collect critical information about Warden Service practices.”

“It’s an important step forward,” Evangelos said. “But a committee also needs to convene a public hearing allowing all sides of this to be heard regarding the enforcement practices as well.”

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Judy Meyer, the executive editor of the Sun Journal and member of the Right to Know Advisory Committee, said she welcomed continuing the discussion around the FOAA concerns outlined in Eves’ letter.

“I think it would be good to have additional conversations about this because this isn’t an issue that’s going to go away anytime soon,” Meyer said.

The advisory committee is set to meet again at 10 a.m. Wednesday, June 22, in the Judiciary Committee room.

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