AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage took aim again Tuesday at the Humane Society of the United States, calling for an end to whistle- blower protections for paid “political operatives” involved in undercover operations.

But representatives for the Humane Society were confused about what protections LePage hoped to rescind and criticized the governor for his stance on an investigation into a large Turner egg farm.

LePage’s comments – made during a speech to Maine agricultural leaders – stem from a video released last summer showing dead and injured hens in what the Humane Society described as cruel and unsanitary conditions at the Hillandale Farms egg-laying facility in Turner, which is about 12 miles north of Lewiston. Videos were taken by an undercover “Humane Society investigator” who had been hired as a worker by New England’s largest egg-producing facility, and those images were included in complaints filed by the organization with state and federal regulators.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s Animal Welfare Program subsequently determined in a Nov. 14 report that Hillandale Farms was following “best management practices” and that animal cruelty citations were not warranted. The department also said eggs from Hillandale – which has an estimated 4 million hens – were safe to eat.

But the video became part of a successful Massachusetts ballot initiative prohibiting what the Humane Society portrayed as inhumane confinement of livestock – a law that could directly affect Maine farmers trying to sell their products in the Bay State.

APPEAL TO CONGRESSIONAL DELEGATION

LePage now appears to be escalating his feud with the Humane Society, which waged an unsuccessful 2014 ballot campaign to ban bear hunting with bait, dogs or traps. First he claimed the Massachusetts law will increase egg prices in Maine. And on Tuesday, he said he has asked members of the state’s congressional delegation to work to end whistleblower protections for “political operatives,” and that he wants the Maine Legislature to rescind parts of Maine’s Freedom of Access laws that protect their identities.

“They hired a gentleman to come in (and) take care of the chickens. So what did he do? He brought his camera and he was watching chickens doing things where they were being hurt,” LePage said during a Maine Agricultural Trades Show luncheon at the Augusta Civic Center. “And he never lifted a finger. In fact, he was cruel to animals. And then (the Humane Society) used the whistleblower laws to protect themselves. I don’t think that political organizations that are nonprofit that claim to be doing something while they do something else should get protected by the whistleblower act.”

But Jonathan Lovvorn, the Humane Society’s senior vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation, said he had “no idea what the governor is talking about here” because the federal whistleblower act only applies to federal employees at federal agencies. While law enforcement often legally shields the identity of witnesses to potential crimes during investigations, Lovvorn said he was not aware of any such protections conferred on either the Humane Society or the former employee in this case.

“Nor do I see how mandating the disclosure of witness or whistleblower identities could do anything but hamper law enforcement, chill reporting of criminal activity and risk the safety of people who are witnesses to crimes,” Lovvorn said.

HUMANE OFFICIAL CRITICIZES LEPAGE

The president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, meanwhile, stood by the investigation Tuesday and accused LePage of “hyperventilating” and being on the wrong side of the animal cruelty issue. Wayne Pacelle noted that 78 percent of Massachusetts voters approved the ballot initiative that prohibits egg-laying hens, pigs or calves from being held in confined spaces.

“I would have thought LePage, seeing this overwhelming expression of public sentiment, would have kept quiet and not wanted to associate himself with this tiny percent of people who support cruelty to animals,” Pacelle said.

Although the Turner farm is operated by Hillandale, it is still owned by Jack DeCoster, a Maine businessman with a long history of environmental and labor violations. DeCoster’s egg and hog companies have been fined repeatedly by federal regulators for, among other things, animal cruelty, unsanitary conditions, environmental violations and workplace safety issues.

The Humane Society released the video of the Maine egg farm months before Massachusetts voters went to the polls on the animal confinement issue. But the law also prohibits the sale in Massachusetts of eggs that were laid on farms that keep hens in conditions that “prevent the animal from lying down, standing up, fully extending its limbs, or turning around freely.”

LePage seized on the timing of the video’s release in a Dec. 22 letter to members of Maine’s congressional delegation.

“Make no mistake, this was not a whistleblower case,” LePage wrote. “(The Humane Society) manufactured their frivolous claims by sending one of their operatives to seek employment at Hillandale specifically to get material to fuel a political initiative in another state. We call on our congressional delegation to prevent the use of ‘whistleblower’ status for political operatives who are paid to purposely defame an organization.”

Peter Steele, LePage’s spokesman, stressed Tuesday that the governor does not want to end all whistleblower protections, but only for paid political operatives.

FARM JOINING CAGE-FREE MOVEMENT

LePage also repeated incorrect statements that the Humane Society released the video to the public last summer before notifying his administration. The Humane Society sent a letter to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry five days before releasing the video.

In the months since the videos became public, Hillandale Farms has said it plans to eventually transition to cage-free setups for hens, although it did not provide a specific time frame. And Pacelle credited Hillandale with “moving rapidly toward cage-free” along with other parts of the egg-producing industry, which is responding to pressure from both consumers and major retailers such as McDonald’s and Wal-Mart.

Pacelle said LePage’s proposal to end protections for whistleblowers such as the one at the Turner egg farm would be problematic. For example, he asked whether the lack of protections would apply to someone who joined the Humane Society or another group after becoming concerned about the animal welfare conditions at their workplace.

Instead, he sought to cast LePage’s proposal as an example of the type of “ag gag” policies being pursued in other states that aim to “punish people who try to expose animal cruelty.”

“I think our work is essential for the public good, especially our agricultural work,” Pacelle said. “And no good farmers have anything to fear from an investigation by our organization.”