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Analysis: Press Herald’s 1,800-word story on public record requests ignores Democratic stonewalling

Billionaire S. Donald Sussman and wife Congresswoman Chellie Pingree own the Portland Press Herald.
Billionaire S. Donald Sussman and wife Congresswoman Chellie Pingree own the Portland Press Herald.

PORTLAND – The Portland Press Herald, a newspaper whose majority owner is one of the largest Democratic donors in the state of Maine, published a 1,800 story about problems with Maine’s Freedom of Access Act Sunday. Although the story mentions purported problems obtaining documents from the LePage administration, staff writer Eric Russell completely ignores the efforts of top Democrats in Augusta to thwart routine journalistic inquiry.

“Despite recent improvements to Maine’s 55-year-old open records law, there are still deficiencies when it comes to compliance,” wrote Russell. “In some cases, it’s fueled by an attitude of secrecy. In others, it’s simply a function of state employees not understanding their responsibilities when it comes to records.”

Russell notes two instances of reporters encountering difficulties when seeking public records from state officials: the CDC document shredding scandal, which PPH editors have been trying to pin on LePage for months, and LePage’s decision to release the much-ballyhooed Alexander Group report on schedule rather than delivering early to one media outlet.

[Related: Our View: Calls for transparency should be bipartisan…]

Mimicking an attack offered up several weeks ago in a PPH editorial, Russell completely ignores The Maine Wire’s experience seeking public records from Senate President Justin Alfond (D-Portland), House Speaker Mark Eves (D-North Berwick) and the co-chairs of the Legislature’s Education Committee, Sen. Rebecca Millett (D-Cumberland) and Rep. W. Bruce MacDonald (D-Boothbay).

Last May, after top Democratic lawmakers refused to answer questions about their school evaluation bill and hastily closed down their press conference, The Maine Wire sought an alternative means to answering the question by submitting a request for public records.

[Recommended: This is what transparency looks like in the Alfond-Eves regime…]

The submission of that request began a more than five-month ordeal in which Eves staff stonewalled follow-up inquiries and eventually asked for fees worth nearly $1,500. According to Democratic staffers, the request for four lawmakers’ emails about one bill consumed 99.5 staff hours to fill.

Although the ordeal has been detailed thoroughly here, Russell does not mention arbitrary overcharging as on of the many pertinent issues in the arena of government transparency. His concern with Freedom of Access Act compliance is apparently not bipartisan.

The Portland Press Herald is part of the MaineToday Media company, which is majority owned by S. Donald Sussman, Maine’s top Democratic political donor and husband to U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree.