- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - A newspaper’s lengthy investigation into allegations of misconduct in the Maine Warden Service led the agency’s commander on Wednesday to halt undercover poaching operations to protect officers.

Col. Joel Wilkinson spoke during a legislative meeting that followed a Maine Sunday Telegram report detailing convicted hunters’ accusations that an undercover warden gave them alcohol, shot a deer and provided a man with a gun and ammunition.

Wilkinson defended the warden’s actions as lawful and said state law forbids the agency from publicly releasing its policy concerning undercover operations.

In June 2012, an undercover agent posing as a Pennsylvania hunter began covertly monitoring a group of hunters in northern Aroostook county, where there had been complaints of illegal hunting. The investigation led to a May 2014 raid filmed by reality show “North Woods Law.”

The commander said his agency has no plans to investigate the agent, who he said followed state law and agency policy.

The agent was never drunk, according to Wilkinson, and shot the deer only when asked to do so by a hunter to protect his safety and avoid blowing his cover.

A previously released version of the agency’s policy said officers can incite people to commit illicit acts if they have predispositions to commit wildlife crimes.

Wilkinson said the agency determined the targeted hunters had such a predisposition - two were convicted in 2008 of poaching a moose at night and leaving it to rot.

The commander said he has shut down the undercover operations to protect the wardens’ safety. He criticized the newspaper for publishing the warden’s photo.

Wilkinson also pointed out the state Supreme Court recently upheld several convictions for one hunter. He denied that any entrapment occurred and compared undercover wardens to Drug Enforcement Agency agents who buy drugs so they can arrest criminals.

The state Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, which held the meeting, also called Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife commissioner Chandler Woodcock and public records ombudsman Brenda Kielty.

Members of the public were not permitted to speak.

The Maine Sunday Telegram has said the Maine Warden Service has failed to satisfy records requests. Kielty said while the process has taken “too long,” the agency is not trying to violate public records laws.

Several committee members called the newspaper’s account exaggerated after hearing from the speakers.

Sen. Paul Davis Sr., a Sangerville Republican who co-chairs the committee, expressed concern state law prohibits the Maine Warden Service from releasing policy revealing how it determines someone is predisposed to commit a crime.

Wilkinson was repeatedly asked what the policy says agents should do in potentially dangerous situations.

The newspaper reported the agent was at times driven around by an intoxicated hunter, who the warden alleged had loaded firearms in his vehicle.

Wilkinson said he wasn’t going to “second-guess any law enforcement officer working in a covert capacity.” He said the agent spent 30 days on the ground during the two-year investigation.

The newspaper reported that, “In reality, the operation had surprisingly scant results.”

In all, the agency said, 17 people were found guilty of more than 75 crimes and violations and ordered to pay more than $39,000 in fines.

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