AUGUSTA, Maine — The head of the Maine Warden Service delivered an hourslong, line-by-line rebuttal Wednesday of a recent investigative report by the Maine Sunday Telegram into tactics used in a 2014 undercover investigation in northern Maine.
Col. Joel Wilkinson told lawmakers Wednesday that because of the media coverage the case has received, he has terminated all undercover investigations out of concern for the safety of his officers and the integrity of their investigations. Wilkinson was particularly angry the Maine Sunday Telegram published the photograph of Bill Livezey, the undercover warden at the center of the 2014 controversy.
“When the paper chose to put the individual state law enforcement officer’s face out to the entire media and expose him and his entire family, the individual started getting harassment calls,” Wilkinson said. “I made a conscious decision right then that I was going to shut everything down for the safety of any and every one of our individual officers.”
At issue is an investigative report published by the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald last month that delved into a 2-year-old case against several individuals in Aroostook County that resulted in multiple convictions for offenses ranging from poaching to felony possession of firearms. The article alleged that Livezey participated in illegal activities, including illegally killing a deer, urging defendants to commit crimes, drinking on the job and encouraging suspects to abuse alcohol.
Sources in the article implied that the warden service designed its investigation and a subsequent series of search warrants in a way that would appeal to the producers of a now-canceled reality television show called “North Woods Law,” which is based on the Maine Warden Service.
Members of the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife questioned Wilkinson for hours Wednesday morning. Much of the hearing, which was scheduled as a fact-finding event, consisted of Republican Sen. Paul Davis of Sangerville reading the article and allowing questions from lawmakers and responses from Wilkinson and others on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis.
Wilkinson and IF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock denounced the publication in aggressive terms.
“What’s included in [the article], many of the wording chosen specifically, in my opinion, is fabricated,” Woodcock said. “The facts are fabricated. The story is exaggerated. It makes for great reading.”
Colin Woodard, who wrote the article, told the Bangor Daily News last month that he is confident about the veracity of the story. He said Wednesday that the whole situation calls into question how transparent state government is.
“We still don’t have all of the documents we have requested,” Woodard said. “We have sent three formal complaints to the state’s public access ombudsman, and still we are many steps away from having all the documents responsive to our request. … If we can’t get our requests fulfilled, what does that say about efficacy of our public records law? How would an ordinary citizen without an institution and lawyers backing them get any answers?”
Wilkinson denied many of the allegations, ranging from the number of officers who were involved in search warrants to what they seized. He also defended undercover investigation techniques by saying Livezey and other officers are highly trained to fit in with the people they are investigating. That includes drinking — or “simulated drinking,” as Wilkinson put it — as well as occasionally breaking laws or witnessing laws be broken.
“We understand the very nature of these cases,” Wilkinson said. “We also understand that really the only defense that’s going to be brought up in one of these cases is entrapment where they’re going to go after the conduct of the undercover officer. We go the extra mile to make sure this doesn’t happen.”
Wilkinson said the successful conclusion of the cases in court was an indication that entrapment of defendants was not an issue.
Access to records
A focus of Wednesday’s hearing was whether the executive branch adhered to open government laws in its responses to the newspaper, which says many of the records it requested were not provided — or were heavily redacted — and that some requests for information remain outstanding.
Wilkinson said he decided during the course of the investigation that correspondences with Woodard would be in writing. Wilkinson said he decided, with feedback from others in the executive branch, to deny requests for a verbal interview.
“My bosses felt there would be no value in having that interview and to answer the questions in writing,” Wilkinson said. “That way they couldn’t be misconstrued or put in the form that I was told they were going to be put in. … It’s very clear that other people’s words were either taken out of context or misconstrued to benefit the intent of the article.”
In a document provided to the Bangor Daily News, Livezey refuted many of the claims in the article and said his career as an undercover agent is irreparably damaged.
“Those who do not understand undercover operations may not understand the reasons we undercover operatives do the things we do,” wrote Livezey, who did not respond to a request from the BDN for an interview. “I hate the betraying aspect of covert investigations, the suspects in my investigations that I have befriended so I could infiltrate the group. … I have always loved Maine’s fish and wildlife. I have always enjoyed working for the honest sportsman in Maine and catching the really intentional violator.”
In the document, Livezey also wrote about the dangers he faced as an undercover agent and the often difficult choices he had to make to prevent his cover from being blown.
“I have been challenged numerous times about possibly being a MDEA agent or undercover warden in several past investigations over the years,” he wrote. “These suspects, many of which who were also convicted felons, drug dealers and/or just really bad people. I have also worked several cases where individuals continually discussed their desire to murder a game warden.”
There was little in the way of a discussion about next steps for lawmakers, other than the production of a summary of Wednesday’s hearing.