Maine’s Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) provides enterprising journalists a way to dig up dirt on matters of great interest to the public, but state officials say some newspaper reporters have taken their pursuit of public records a little too far.
The MAINE WIRE has obtained emails that show how newspaper reporters have threatened to publish unflattering stories about state workers or state agencies — including details of state workers’ personal lives — if their FOAA requests are not granted quickly or inexpensively enough.
According to state law, agencies may charge up to $15 for every hour after the first hour and are required to acknowledge receipt of a FOAA request within one week. But there is no predetermined time frame for the delivery of information – some requests can be granted within minutes, while others may take months, a fact that wears on the patience of deadline-focused reporters.
Michael Doyle, an editor and reporter for Falmouth Today, told state workers in a March 21 email he would publish photographs of their houses and interviews with their neighbors if they did not comply with his FOAA request in suitable fashion.
Doyle even went as far as raising the possibility that he would keep tabs on state workers on the Internet, at their homes and at public events – activities some would consider stalking.
“If you’d like to take this moment and rethink the 13 hours, 5 weeks, and $228 to copy 195 pages it might be a good idea,” Doyle said in an email to three state employees.
“This will be followed by other articles with sidebars containing your personal profiles, photos of homes, interviews with neighbors, you know the human side of your lives,” Doyle said.
“We’ll couple this with videos we’ll take at the public portion of Board Meetings. You might ask Dale McCormack how it turned out for her when we recorded 4 of her Board Meetings at MSHA? Or we can cap this right now with full cooperation, faster response, and at a reasonable charge,” Doyle said in closing: “Pick one.”
One state worker who received Doyle’s ominous message sent a one-word reply to her supervisor: “Help.”
Doyle, who is a member of the National Press Club, told The MAINE WIRE his exchanges with state workers were not threats. He said the time and cost quotes given to him for his FOAA request were “outrageous” and “outright lies.”
“A lot of people conduct themselves through the auspices of government and they have a big impact on people,” he said. “Maybe people should see how these people are living,” said Doyle.
“I’m not threatening to write anything unflattering, I’m just curious to see if [state workers] treat everyone like they treat people looking for public records,” said Doyle. “I don’t see how that’s intimidating them.”
In a separate series of emails obtained by The MAINE WIRE, Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) workers discuss similar messages received from writers at Maine Today Media’s Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram.
“There is a disturbing trend from the Portland Press Herald to threaten this Department in terms of what it may write if it does not get what it wants,” DHHS Communications Director John A. Martins said in a March 4 email.
“It is the third such threat in the last month – and FOAAs are coming from them hot and heavy,” said Martins.
“I am not a fan of this approach, as it is both poor form and shows a real lack of journalistic integrity,” he said. “In my 20-plus years of newspapering and 10-plus years of editing, I never threatened someone in order to receive information.”
Martins’ message about threats from reporters came in response to a request from Kelly J. Bouchard, a staff writer for the Press Herald and Sunday Telegram.
Bouchard requested data on foster care enrollment spanning 12-plus years, three Commissioners, the merger that created DHHS, the formation of the Office of Child and Family Services and two different gubernatorial administrations, according to the emails.
Bouchard’s March 4 email contained no explicit threats but did raise the possibility that failure to provide the records in question quickly and for free would result in the publication of unflattering facts about DHHS.
“If you decline to waive the fee, please know that I will explain to our readers that the department doesn’t fully track foster care costs and that we had to pay to get this information,” Bouchard said in the email.
In a March 12 email exchange, Bouchard complained about the handling of her FOAA request and attempts to instruct Martins as to how he ought to be doing his job.
“It would be great if we could get passed me always having to apologize for seeking info and you always telling me that I’m asking for too much,” she said.
“It’s what I do and it’s your job,” she said.
Bouchard made good on her threat with a March 23 Press Herald story in which she reported that DHHS practices and technical issues hampered her investigation and cost the paper $30.
In a written statement for The MAINE WIRE, Bouchard defended her reports on DHHS’ foster care program.
“My goal from the start and in the end was to report on challenges facing a Maine state agency that cares for some of our most vulnerable children and families,” Bouchard said in an email.
“The stories speak for themselves,” said Bouchard.
Bouchard published her story on foster care on Sunday with the title, “Poor planning adds to Maine’s foster care crisis.”
Despite her tenacious quest for access to public records, the story contained numerous inaccuracies, according to a March 27 email from Martins to Bouchard and her colleague John Richardson that bore the subject line, “Corrections to Sunday’s story.”
In that email, Martins lists eight items in Bouchard’s story that are either factually incorrect or inaccurate.
“The foster family who was featured in this piece did not ‘narrowly avoid a 25 percent reduction in their subsidy for the next three months’ as was written,” wrote Martins. “A reduction to their funding was never proposed or deliberated.”
Martins also corrected the Press Herald’s statements on DHHS’s funding and the 2013-14 biennial budget:
“The increase is 3.8 percent of the $111.4 million budget, not 12 percent as reported… The state did not pay $63,000 for each of the 1,907 children who spent at least one day in care during the budget year that ended June 30, 2012, as reported… The trend of consistent increases in care truly began in January of 2012, not September of 2011 as reported… The 25 percent reduction in subsidy equates to $590 for 90 days, not $1,200 as reported.”
Presently, the only correction offered on the story is strangely out of synch with Martins’ corrections and even seems to distort the truth further:
Bouchard said in an email that this correction will run in Friday’s paper. (Note: Bouchard said in a later email that she is working with state officials to determine whether this correction is accurate.)
Theodore R. Cohen, 35-year journalist with the Press Herald, said the paper has gone downhill since he retired in 2004 to become a truck driver.
Cohen, who was the first to discover President George W. Bush’s 1976 drunk driving arrest in Kennebunkport, said standards at the Press Herald started to decline in 1998 when Gannet Company, Inc. sold it.
“In my heyday the Portland Press Herald – the state’s largest paper – was a newspaper,” said Cohen.
Cohen routinely posts comments at the Press Herald’s website, PressHerald.com, pointing out problems with stories.
“I am compelled out of respect for the journalistic craft to point out deficiencies,” he said.
While many readers probably ignore Cohen’s comments, Press Herald Managing Editor Steven Greenlee does not.
In a Facebook message sent to Cohen on Wednesday, Greenlee said he was “disappointed” in his former colleague’s “unending campaign against the paper.”
“I realize you see yourself as a Press Herald watchdog, so do what you’ve got to do,” said Greenlee. “But you should realize that your attacks are now aimed squarely at some of the people you worked alongside and who had your back all those years ago.”
Cohen said Greenlee’s message was unusual conduct for a managing editor and that he would continue to be vocal about the paper’s journalistic standards.
“It’s about defending the craft and making sure the standards that once reigned at the Portland Press Herald can someday return.”
Editor’s Note: No state workers were threatened in the writing of this story.
By S.E. Robinson
Maine Wire Reporter