A fundamental feature of good government is transparency. It earns the public trust through principled operations and open-handedness.

That is why the information in a series of Portland Press Herald articles about undercover game warden operations and the one-sided IF&W Committee meeting prompted by its publication is so concerning.

The newspaper raised questions about undercover investigations by the Maine Warden Service and the activity of one undercover warden in particular. During investigations in the Allagash and elsewhere in the state, the warden was reported to have provided alcohol to suspects, including underage ones, and goaded them into breaking game laws. It also revealed instances of that warden breaking those very laws during his investigations.

Residents of the Allagash accused the warden of entrapment. The newspaper reported that wardens also seized canned food from a woman’s pantry, including canned peaches — a claim the Maine Warden Service has vehemently denied.

What concerns me is not the details of what particular produce was seized, but the apparent dismissiveness by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Warden Service in the face of the questions raised in the report.

During a hearing before the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, ostensibly convened to look into the controversy, Maine Warden Service Col. Joel Wilkinson made it crystal clear that he has no intention to investigate the accused warden’s actions.


He and IF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock presented the statements of the undercover officer as “fact” while characterizing the allegations of others and the reporting on them as “stories” and fabrications. But how can they make those characterizations without first investigating the claims?

Wilkinson and Woodcock would have the public believe that because the accusations against their warden were made by men and women who have been convicted of violating fish and wildlife laws, we should dismiss the accusations out of hand. But true accountability demands much more than that.

Law enforcement agencies are granted immense authority to enforce the state’s laws, with force if necessary. The public has a right to know that authority is being used judiciously and ethically. That means taking it seriously when questions are raised, not dismissing those concerns with a wave of the hand.

We should expect people in Woodcock’s and Wilkinson’s position to “stand by their man.” But that should not and cannot mean turning a blind eye to the questions raised about the Warden Service’s tactics. Their attitude does not convince me that we know all the facts of the matter. Worse, it erodes that all-important public trust.

So how do we get to the truth of the matter?

The IF&W Committee’s failure to ask questions of other parties doesn’t get us there. An unwillingness to conduct an internal investigation doesn’t get us there. So we have a matter of trust which still deserves to be taken seriously, deserves definitive answers about what actually happened and how we know that to be true.


The lack of credible investigation of the matter is not the only aspect that is undermining public trust. There is also the blatant disregard of the public’s right-to-know.

I have written many policies over the years. These are the guidelines by which government employees and others understand what is expected of them, and the principles and guidelines within which the organization is expected to operate.

So why did DIF&W refuse to release an unredacted copy of its Undercover Operations Policy when it was requested by the Portland Press Herald? The document the department released was near completely redacted.

The department claims that the document contains sensitive information, the release of which would jeopardize law enforcement operations. If that is true, then the department needs to revisit the document. For the sake of transparency and accountability, general policies should be crafted in a manner that is open to public scrutiny. That is precisely the reason they don’t normally contain sensitive tactical or personal information.

The department says the policy has changed since 2005, the last time it was released to the media. At that time, no redactions were necessary. So the obvious question is: What policy and principles of operation are the Department hiding from public view and why?

The people of Maine deserve law enforcement that accepts public scrutiny. They deserve to know that all Maine Warden Service operations, including undercover ones, are conducted with integrity. That will require thorough investigation.


The Speaker of the House has called on the Right-to-Know Advisory Committee to convene, to look into questions regarding the department’s release of records under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act and to identify changes to the act, if necessary, to ensure more accountability in government.

As a member of the Judiciary Committee, I also urge the Right-to-Know Advisory Committee to undertake that work.

But the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife must be called on to conduct a thorough, earnest investigation into the actions of its officers in the Allagash and elsewhere. If these sensible measures are not done and done right, then an investigation by the Government Oversight Committee may be necessary.

For the sake of renewing the public’s trust, it is simply not good enough for the wardens to say, “Trust us.”

Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, is the lead Senate Democrat on the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Judiciary and a member of the Government Oversight Committee.

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