It couldn’t have come at a better time.

Just when I thought my head would explode if I heard one more mention of “presumptive” presidential nominees Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, along came last week’s showdown between the Maine Sunday Telegram and the Maine Warden Service over “North Woods Lawless.”

That was the banner over last Sunday’s riveting story and sidebars by staff writer Colin Woodard about “Operation Red Meat,” a two-year, over-the-top undercover investigation by the warden service in the backwoods of Aroostook County. The headline plays off “North Woods Law,” the Animal Planet TV show that captured the drama – or lack thereof – for the whole world to see.

In the days since the story ran, we’ve had calls by legislators on both sides of the aisle for hearings on who did what and why, followed by full-throated condemnations of Woodard and this newspaper by Gov. Paul LePage and the game wardens, followed by more reports of questionable tactics by the warden service and the undercover agent it’s used, year after year, to reel in the hapless poachers.

So here I sit, still catching my breath from it all.

And I’ve got a few questions:

First and foremost, do Maine’s game wardens know their Alces alces from their Prunus persica?

The former is the scientific name for Maine’s moose. The latter is Latin for the peach.

I ask this because the wardens, in their rather disjointed 2,800-word response to “North Woods Lawless,” acknowledge that they mistook jars of “vegetables” for jars of moose meat while raiding the home of Hope Kelly, the mother of one of the defendants in Operation Red Meat.

As for Ms. Kelly’s claim that they also made off with her prized stock of home-canned peaches, however, the wardens insisted, “At no point did the warden service seize peaches.”

Yet in an evidence photo taken that night by the wardens, right next to a jar of what looks like not-so-red Alces alces is a jar of bright orange Prunus persica.

Go figure.

Why won’t the Maine Warden Service answer the Maine Sunday Telegram’s questions?

For more than six months, reporter Woodard repeatedly has requested interviews with everyone from Col. Joel Wilkinson, commander of the warden service, on down. And the warden service’s terse response to Woodard’s written questions, repeatedly labeling this or that criticism against them “completely inaccurate and untrue,” reads like a heavily sterilized court deposition.

And now they complain, ad nauseam, that their side of the story isn’t being told.

How much did Operation Red Meat cost?

Reasonable people can disagree on whether two years of an undercover agent’s time, along with a raid involving some 30 game wardens and state police backup, was worth the subsequent two arrests and array of non-felony charges against 21 others back in February 2014.

But in order for taxpayers to make that judgment, the least the Maine Warden Service could do is put a price tag on the whole thing. Which they won’t.

Why not?

Why won’t the Maine Warden Service release the emails between game wardens and the “North Woods Law” production company?

This would seem pretty simple: On Nov. 2, 2015, Woodard and the Maine Sunday Telegram submitted a request under the Maine Freedom of Access Act seeking all emails between the wardens and Engel Entertainment, the producers of “North Woods Law.” The Maine Warden Service initially estimated it would take about six hours to fulfill the request.

More than six months later, they still haven’t forked them over.

So even as they thump their chests about enforcing Maine law, let’s not forget that they’re simultaneously breaking it.

Whose side is Maine’s public access ombudsman on?

Her name is Brenda Kielty and her job, according to the state’s website, is “to review complaints about compliance with the Freedom of Access Act and attempt to mediate their resolution.”

According to an endless email chain between the newspapers, the warden service and associated lawyers that now reads like an Abbott and Costello routine, Kielty first got involved in the Freedom of Access dispute on Jan. 20. It’s now May 15, with no resolution in sight.

Suggested question for Ms. Kielty: For an agency that specializes in search and rescue, how hard can it be to find a few emails?

How long is too long for an agent to remain undercover?

William Livezey, the undercover agent at the heart of this and countless other raids, has been scurrying around Maine playing good-old-boy Pennsylvania hunter Bill Fried for at least a dozen years, maybe a lot longer.

It’s hard to fathom, from one investigation to another, that nobody has recognized him. You’ve also got to wonder, after all those years playing a lawbreaker so convincingly, if he still recognizes himself.

What’s with all the beer?

Everywhere Livezey/Fried goes, he seems to have a 12-pack under his arm. He apparently favors Yuengling, which is a clever choice because it’s brewed in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, and is not distributed in Maine.

But by all accounts (except, of course, that of the Maine Warden Service), Livezey/Fried does a lot of drinking on the job. Assuming he expenses his, ahem, accessories, might taxpayers be entitled to a look-see at all those years of Yuengling receipts?

And while we’re on the topic of beer, what’s the deal with that garbage can?

According to a story in Friday’s Portland Press Herald, Livezey/Fried once became so drunk during an investigation in York County that he tumbled into a garbage can. Then, according to a target of that operation, he insisted on getting into his car and driving miles to his hotel.

Too bad the “North Woods Law” cameras weren’t rolling for that one. When it comes to reality TV, that’s lightning in a bottle.

Why are 15 pages of a 16-page state policy redacted?

Talk about pure, unadulterated arrogance.

The Maine Sunday Telegram requests a copy of the Maine Warden Service policy on “special investigations” and, upon delivery, virtually the entire thing is blacked out except for some introductory chatter and a few scattered definitions.

And, right at the end, this: “News, Media and Press: Inquiries from the press, news media and other public information outlets will be forwarded to the Augusta office for response by the Colonel, Major or as otherwise directed by the Colonel or Major.”

I’m surprised they didn’t draw in an upraised middle finger.

When is the Maine Warden Service going to stop lying about the Portland Press Herald?

In a statement released Friday evening, warden service spokesman Cpl. John MacDonald claimed that the Press Herald failed to report on the shooting of two New Hampshire police officers early that morning because “they would rather focus on their attempts to smear rather than report on newsworthy events.”

The shootings in Manchester occurred at 2 a.m. Six hours later, at 8:03 a.m., the story was posted on the Press Herald website.

And we’re the ones not telling the truth.

Finally, who spooked the legislators?

Immediately after “North Woods Lawless” broke, lawmakers from both parties promised to pick up where the story left off and start demanding answers to the questions that the Maine Warden Service continues to ignore.

Then LePage opened fire on the newspaper – like nobody saw that coming – and the whole thing took on the specter of yet another political fight that could now sputter to a halt at the edge of Augusta’s great partisan divide.

Let’s hope not.

The only real way to end this thing is to choose the appropriate legislative committee – preferably one with subpoena power – and call in Agent Livezey/Fried and his handlers for a long overdue chat.

They can bring the beer.

Or at least a jar of Prunus persica.

 


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