- Associated Press - Saturday, December 29, 2018

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Republican Gov. Paul LePage promised to fight for citizens’ rights to access information from Maine’s government and kicked things off with a vow that his transition would be “the most transparent” in history. As he prepares to leave office eight years later, he leaves behind a spotty legacy on transparency.

While LePage made state spending more open and pushed lawmakers to give more detail about their finances, he regularly declined to release his public schedules, took months to release the membership of a secretive wind energy panel and argued his working papers and handwritten notes shouldn’t be open to public scrutiny. During LePage’s tenure, a whistleblower claimed that Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention ordered her to shred public documents, leading to a lawsuit that was settled.

The governor even claimed he was careful to avoid producing written records that could be requested.

When there were records available, critics have said LePage’s administration was slow to respond to public record requests, which grew from 969 in 2015 to 1,328 last year. Those figures include 14 state agencies but not LePage’s office, which doesn’t have to report such figures.

LePage’s office didn’t respond Friday to say how many public record requests remain unanswered, but his team told The Associated Press his administration intends to fulfill all pending requests before he leaves office Wednesday, when Attorney General Janet Mills will be sworn in to succeed him.

LePage’s record on public access has put him at odds with Mills, a Democrat who has promised greater transparency. Both went to court claiming the other broke public records law, and LePage paid a $500 after Mills lodged a complaint when his administration denied public access to an education commission meeting.

Maine’s Freedom of Access Act gives the public the right to access public meetings and records, but there’s no law saying how quickly agencies must produce the documents.

Maine public access ombudsman Brenda Kielty told lawmakers this year it’s a “concern” that the reports of record requests taking longer than 60 days was double last year what it was in 2015.

“They end up sitting for so long that you sometimes end up just forgetting about them or not caring anymore because the time has passed where they would have been useful,” said Jack Comart, attorney for Maine Equal Justice Partners, which advocates for low-income Mainers.

Comart said the Department of Health and Human Security now requires record requests to obtain data and reports that were freely released under former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. Jim Campbell of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition says the group will work with lawmakers on reforms to address delays.

LePage complained special interest groups used the law as a “weapon” to cripple his administration. He said he has nothing to hide from “legitimate requests” but indicated that he has tried to avoid being forced to turn over too much.

“I don’t put anything in writing, because of (Maine’s Freedom of Access Act), and I’m not bashful about saying that,” LePage told reporters in 2015, responding to a question about a public records request made by Sen. Dawn Hill. “You’re welcome to all my notes. If you can read them, God bless you, because the lawyers can’t.”

LePage’s office also points out that answering record requests costs time and money. Administration officials who handle public record requests also have other responsibilities, said Avery Day, LePage’s former top in-house lawyer.

“That makes that difficult when you’d get inundated with requests,” Day said.

But delays, backlogs and sometimes high bills for record requests mean the public must wait for information on issues ranging from environmental regulations to lead paint removal to infectious diseases.

Conservation Law Foundation attorney, Phelps Turner, said the group has been waiting since June 2017 for records showing how Maine responds to lead abatement orders. The Department of Health and Human Services initially estimated the foundation would have to pay more than $20,775 to receive 17,600 pages of records, according to correspondence reviewed by AP.

“I think that was designed to create a disincentive to pursue the request,” said Turner.

Meanwhile, the AP has been waiting for a year-and-a-half on a records request filed in response to LePage’s unsupported claims that illegal immigration has led to a rise in HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis C.

LePage made the claim in his 2015 State of the State address even though Maine’s infectious disease data is not broken down by country of origin or citizenship status.

Just what statistics LePage was citing remains unknown. HIV and tuberculosis cases are dropping in Maine. Health officials link rising hepatitis C rates in states like Maine to sharing needles.

Still, LePage pushed for lawmakers to disclose more details about their finances and launched an online database of state spending that garnered initial praise from Denver-based watchdog U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

But Maine’s website is slow and doesn’t disclose information about which companies are getting tax breaks, said Frontier Group policy analyst Rachel Cross, who tracks such state websites.

“It’s an improvement,” she said. “But then it kind of plateaued. There’s a lot of work the state could do to get a lot better.”

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