Governor Janet Mills listens as Kara Hay, chief executive officer of PenquisCAP, speaks during a press conference in early November in Brewer. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Gov. Janet Mills on Friday declined to say whether she would take any action in light of a 3-part Bangor Daily News investigation that exposed a predatory culture inside the Maine Army National Guard.

Mills, who oversees the Maine National Guard, would not directly address the findings of the monthslong BDN investigation, which documented a spike in sexual assault cases, a culture permissive of sexual harassment and retaliation against women who come forward.

“I read the first one. I haven’t got around to read the second two. I’m sorry. I will,” Mills told a reporter while attending a children’s vaccination clinic at Morse High School in Bath Friday morning. “It’s a good piece of investigative journalism. I really appreciate that. But I can’t comment without digesting them, reading them, sorry.”

The first installment of the BDN’s series, “Unguarded,” published four days before her comments, revealed the rise in substantiated sexual assaults in the Maine Army National Guard over the last two years that soldiers blamed on a predatory culture that is hostile to women. Subsequent stories laid out the retaliation women soldiers face and possible solutions. Another story, published Thursday, summarized the key takeaways from the series.

Mills’ response is notable because governors in other states have called for independent investigations into their guards’ handling of sexual assault and harassment cases in response to similar reporting.

In most cases, those investigations have been conducted at no charge by a division of the federal National Guard Bureau, which independently probes the scope of the problem and lays out possible fixes. The bureau said it has temporarily paused those assessments while it reviews its process. But states have other ways they can conduct independent investigations. Alaska, for example, appointed a special investigator to evaluate its National Guard.

Meanwhile, Rep. Christopher Caiazzo, D-Scarborough, co-chair of the Legislature’s veterans and legal affairs committee, said he is waiting until the spring to decide whether lawmakers would take up the issue. That’s when guard officials are required to deliver a report evaluating “any crucial needs and lapses in responding to and preventing military sexual trauma” and “determine if additional action is necessary.”

The report, due in March, is required by a bill Mills signed into law in May.

During a Thursday meeting, Caiazzo said guard officials acknowledged the BDN’s series and, in response, explained their sexual assault and harassment policies. Another member of the veterans and legal affairs committee, Rep. MaryAnne Kinney, R-Knox, also attended the meeting, which Caiazzo said was scheduled before the stories ran. She did not return a voicemail seeking comment on Friday.

The BDN sent Mills’ office a summary of its findings in late October, before the stories ran.

In response, Mills said reports of sexual assault and harassment “are serious and deserve the utmost scrutiny” and “we are committed to taking immediate, responsive action to any reports brought to our attention.”

She also said that Adjunct General Douglas Farnham, the guard’s top official, had reassured her that the guard would take “every appropriate step to root out sexual assault and harassment, to hold perpetrators accountable, and to support survivors.”

On Monday morning, Farnham sent an organization-wide email alerting guard members of the BDN’s series.

“You will soon read negative press about the Maine National Guard with respect to sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Farnham wrote in the email, a copy of which was obtained by the BDN. “I am proud of the work we have done resulting in increased reporting, including bystander reporting. I am proud of the work you have done. We will not let up the efforts. You should always feel comfortable and empowered to report instances of sexual assault or harassment. Sexual assault and harassment are not compatible with military service. Period.”

Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.