LePage's transparency problem

Governor's staff fights public-records requests, even those that help them
By COLIN WOODARD  |  November 9, 2011

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If you happen to be one of the few investigative journalists in Maine, people tend to pass story leads on to you. If the source is credible, the story plausible, and the implications significant, you try to chase the story down. Sometimes the story turns out to be true, sometimes false, sometimes in-between, but the point is to get to the bottom of it, come what may.

This spring, a potentially explosive rumor began circulating among Maine's political insiders. Governor Paul LePage, whisperers from across the political spectrum reported, had not really gone on a Jamaican vacation back in April, when he abruptly abandoned his post for a week in the middle of the legislative session. Indeed, he supposedly hadn't left the state.

It was a rumor worth checking into. It had a modicum of credibility: over several weeks, I heard it repeated by well-placed sources from different parties with no obvious connection to one another. It was plausible: LePage had departed on short notice in the midst of a self-started firestorm, having offended the NAACP, organized labor, women (with or without "little beards"), and half the Republican senate caucus. For a figure not known for backing down from a fight, it had seemed an uncharacteristic retreat.

If false, it should also have been very easy to disprove: the governor's office would have all manner of evidence at hand with which to quash such an outlandish story, and it would be in their interest to do so. Or so one would think.

First stop: the governor's official schedule, containing detailed travel information on his comings and goings, including his flight, rental car, and hotel booking details for everything from an April 29 to May 2 trip to his son's graduation in Florida to his May 5-6 trip to Nashville for a Republican Governors Association meeting. The one exception: his Jamaica vacation, a blank slate, save for a single reference to an AirTran flight to Portland from that carrier's Baltimore hub.

Second stop: simply ask the governor's office for logistical details that would establish his whereabouts. Deputy legal counsel Michael Cianchette's response: "These documents are not related to the transaction of government business and are thus outside the scope of FOAA."

Third stop: request travel sheets for his security detail from the Maine State Police, redacted to reveal only the addresses or country to which his driver and/or guards traveled that week. Presumably they'd show either that police had taken the governor to the airport and knocked off for the week or that they'd accompanied him somewhere else. No dice. After consulting with the governor's attorney, Dan Billings, police legal counsel Christopher Parr refused on the grounds that this was "intelligence and investigative information" the release of which would endanger "life or physical safety." Meanwhile, Billings vowed to editors and colleagues I work with that I would never obtain these documents.

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