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At Hearing, Warden Service Disputes Allagash Poaching Report — Word by Word

Steve Mistler
State Sens. Scott Cyrway (from left), R-Bennignton; Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville; and Rep. Robert Duchesne, D-Hudson.

After weeks of scrutiny over a high-profile poaching sting in Allagash, the Maine Warden Service used a legislative hearing Wednesday to refute a newspaper account of the events and to question the motives of the reporter.

The head of the Warden Service told lawmakers that the story has generated harassment of an undercover agent and prompted the service to suspend covert operations.

Three weeks ago, Sangerville Republican state Sen. Paul Davis expressed concerns with some of the details reported in the Maine Sunday Telegram story “North Woods Lawless.” Davis, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, even floated the idea of subpoenaing officials in the Warden Service to answer questions about a covert agent’s tactics leading up to the 2014 poaching sting.

But Wednesday, Davis used a four-hour hearing to read the 6,000-word story, word for word.

He stopped at various points to allow Col. Joel Wilkinson, the head of the Warden Service, to refute key, and sometimes minor, details.

“There were no blue lights flashing, as indicated in the story,” Wilkinson said. “I want to just point out that if you’re going to serve a search a warrant, the last thing you want to do is identify to the defendants that you’re coming.”

Those types of exchanges took place throughout the hearing. The meeting had been called to address questions raised in the report, including whether Bill Livezey, an undercover agent for the Warden Service, had padded evidence and lured his targets into committing gaming crimes by committing violations himself.

The newspaper has since filed several more stories about Livezey in which his targets or their attorneys have questioned his conduct while undercover. Some of his targets have accused Livezey of getting drunk or providing them with alcohol.

State Rep. Peter Lyford, a Republican from Eddington, asked Wilkinson if Livezey was a drinker.

“He’s a Christian man that does not drink, period,” Wilkinson said. “Unless he’s working.”

Wilkinson went on to give an unequivocal defense of the agent, saying the newspaper had recklessly exposed him and his family to harassment by publishing his photo alongside subsequent follow-up stories. He said that his agency had also suspended covert operations as a result of the report.

At one point, Inland Fisheries & Wildlife Chief Chandler Woodcock stepped in to blast the report and its author, Colin Woodard.

“The facts are fabricated, the story’s exaggerated,” Woodcock said. “It makes for great reading.”

Editors at the newspaper declined to be interviewed, but in a written statement, Executive Editor Cliff Schectman said that Woodard spent six months reviewing thousands of pages of court documents and files from the Warden Service. He said the idea that Woodard fabricated the story “doesn’t meet the straight-face test.”

Most lawmakers were deferential to Wilkinson’s responses, but some questioned whether an agent could, or should, lure subjects into breaking laws by doing so themselves. Wilkinson said that it was allowed in order to protect the agent.

“When you’re there, and you’re witnessing violations and they’re continuing to occur, it’s very common for the targets of the investigation to challenge the operatives,” he said.

The hearing ended with no calls for further investigation. State Rep. John Martin, a Democrat from Eagle Lake, said the proceeding left many questions unanswered, and suggested further review by the Judiciary Committee.

Martin, who knows several of the targets from the 2014 poaching sting, said the wardens could have avoided a one-sided story by cooperating with the newspaper during the reporting process.

“The department failed to respond to the questions of the reporter,” he said. “I think that was a mistake for the department. Now they’re trying to cover themselves based on what they say is inaccurate statements by the reporter, and that’s unfortunate. Obviously if the story had been responded to by the department then you’d have a more accurate story of what took place.”

Wilkinson was asked why the agency did not agree to meet with Woodard and stopped responding to his questions in writing. Wilkinson said he had been advised by the office of Gov. Paul LePage, and others, that there was “no value” in trying to advance the agency’s side of the story.

Disclosure: Steve Mistler is a former reporter for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.