March 24, 2023

Maine’s Warden Service Undercover Tactics Raise Questions

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I really haven’t wanted to touch this story with a ten-foot pole…for obvious and not so obvious reasons. However, it is time to weigh in with questions, of which there seems to be few, if any, answers.

Of late, the uproar was reignited when Portland Press Herald investigative reporter, Colin Woodard, filed his report in the Sunday newspaper about a sting operation in the small, northern Maine town of Allagash, that took two years of undercover work by a Maine Warden Service agent and yielded basically nothing.

I will not offer comment about the details of the operation because there is little known about what actually took place, including all the ins and outs, approvals by whom, etc. I can comment on what can be found in writing.

We don’t know how much the entire operation cost – the commissioner would not give that information – that netted charges for illegally attaching a tag to a deer, poaching of a single partridge, and drinking alcohol, but common sense should tell us the decision to undertake an investigation of this sort was a bad one – or at least to continue the sting for two years.

Also at issue are the “policies” that govern the actions of undercover wardens in cases like this. The Press Herald provides a copy of these policies that date back to 2005. Upon request for the latest version, according to Woodard, what he got was a redacted copy. People want to know why? What’s to hide?

It appears as though a lot of people are angry and left with a lot of unanswered questions about this sting operation and that the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW), which oversees the Maine Warden Service (MWS), isn’t answering any questions.

It is my understanding that when a decision is being made about whether to implement an undercover program, the determining factor is that the target must have a “predisposition” to poach game, i.e. break the law. Of course, such a prerequisite is, perhaps deliberately, left undefined and value laden from the perspective of the one who ultimately makes the decision.

Upon examination of the investigative reporting linked to above, Woodard gives readers an example of the request given to undertake an undercover investigation. For an agent to request an undercover operation they obviously have a hankering to do so and thus, as can be seen in the request, it becomes a sales pitch which should leave one to question how much such a request ought to be watered down…or maybe not.

The warden at the center of the covert action has a track record of trouble in other sting operations. In a separate report by the Press Herald, the same warden embedded himself to “sting” a registered Maine guide. According to the Press Herald report, “he enticed other individuals to commit wildlife crimes.” The Court, in finding the target not guilty, said the undercover warden, “created numerous instances of crime … participated in the criminal activity, and debased the integrity of Maine law enforcement in the process.” (Note: If the agent was allowed to carry out behavior of readily breaking laws and “enticing” others to do it with him for 10 years, one has to wonder to what degree, if any, he would be responsible for his actions in this latest sting.)

Perhaps the first question that needs to be answered is, to what level does a “predisposition to commit crime” need to rise that makes a target worthy of the time and money and the potential for criminal yield?

Another question might be, in fielding the request for an undercover sting, are the previous actions and results in court, considered by the person or persons making the decision to undertake a sting?

A third question should be, was the undercover operation being reported and updated on a regular basis to the powers in charge. If not, it should have been. If so, why wasn’t the sting called off once it became clear that return on investment was going to be poor. Is this a series of bad decision-making or a case of getting away with it in the past, so what that heck?

Question four, did it really require 30 game wardens, backed up by Maine State Police, to arrest one man and confiscate a 91-year-old-woman’s canned vegetables and moose meat, in a tiny town with only one road in and the same road out?

We now are hearing that state senator Paul Davis, who sits on the Joint Standing Committee of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, wants a meeting with the MDIFW commissioner to get answers. As was reported in this article, MDIFW is working on a statement about this incident. More than likely it will involve at least one, if not more, smooth-talking lawyers in order to cover up what needs to be covered up.

All of this should bring common sense citizens, at least those with some sort of moral compass and not blindly in love with law enforcement, thinking they can do no wrong, to question the need for law enforcement to break the laws they are sworn to uphold in hopes of creating or catching a “criminal.” If a person breaks the law, the person breaks the law. Arrest them for that act. One even has to question the need to allow law breaking for several years, sometimes resulting in more game poached than is legally taken, for the purpose of catching more people and making more charges. Is it really in the best interest of everyone to bait and trap people, the most of whom are easily influenced and under the right circumstances could be talked into anything? This is one of the troubles that result when undercover agents are allowed to go outside the law to make somebody else break the law so they can be arrested. When you consider that some agents provide alcohol to a sting target. Is this so their judgement becomes impaired and can more easily be influenced to break the law?

Illegal undercover operations are nothing new. I read about these kinds of fish and game undercover stings all across the country. Just about all of them that involve agents breaking the law to trap a “lawbreaker” end up being tossed out of court, i.e. a whole lot of time and money, all the resources that could be used for more productive things, down the tubes.

It appears to me, that in this case, whether it was the process or the decision making, or a combination of both, things were allowed to get beyond sense and sensibility and the result appears to speak for itself. Outcomes, such as the one at hand, do nothing for the image of the law enforcement and certainly destroys any level of trust and support that is often times needed to uphold the law. Is this not a pretty backward approach? Law enforcement needs to do their job but they can’t have the power to break the laws the rest of us are required to abide by, in order to find a criminal. It shouldn’t have to be this way. This is law enforcement out of control.

As far as the television crew from Animal Planet’s, North Woods Law, being on hand to film the mini, military invasion of Allagash, Maine, I’ll not even attempt to address that issue. Some think their presence embellished the entire bust. Readers will have to decide.

PPH has provided a chain of emails concerning its request for email from the MDIFW. This is incredible to say the least!