Colin Woodard received several tips last year about “a reign of terror” on the staff of Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection.
As he looked into the tips, Woodard began unraveling a twisted truth: Patricia Aho, Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection commissioner and a former corporate and industrial lobbyist, has been fighting against laws and programs that her former clients in the real estate development, drug, chemical and oil companies opposed.
His reporting led to a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation, “The Lobbyist in the Henhouse,” which was published this week.
The three-part series offers a detailed look at programs that have reportedly suffered as a result of Aho’s leadership — including the Kid Safe Products Act, a law that protects children, babies and fetuses from harmful chemicals. Woodard also discovered that Aho oversaw a clampdown on the DEP’s personnel that limited their ability to share information with policy staff, lawmakers and one another.
His investigation is a reminder of the need for watchdog stories that expose wrongdoings, raise and answer important questions, and ultimately spur change.
Reporting the series
Woodard, a state and national affairs reporter for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, spent seven months reporting and writing the series. For the first three months, he balanced his time between the investigation and unrelated reporting. By mid-February, he said via email, the investigation became his primary focus.
“The greatest challenge — and one that was extremely time consuming — was building a network of contacts and sources within or recently departed from the department,” Woodard said. “Most everyone was fearful of losing their jobs or of retaliation against friends or current employers, so it took time to win trust even with those who spoke not-for-attribution. They were all taking great personal and professional risk by speaking to me, and some have been quite courageous.”
Woodard, who won the 2012 George Polk Award for Education Reporting, admits he wasn’t that surprised by the investigation’s findings.
“‘Regulatory capture’ is, sadly, a fairly common phenomenon,” he said. “I did learn a great deal about the many ways in which a law can be effectively neutered in those arcane processes few of us have the time to write about: regulatory rule making, staffing, and enforcement.”
Making the time for a lengthy investigation
Ambitious projects at large news organizations, like The New York Times’ “Snow Fall,” get a lot of attention — and rightfully so. But if you’re a journalist at a smaller news outlet with far fewer resources, it can be hard to imagine creating similar projects.
“Lobbyist in the Henhouse” shows any news organization can do excellent storytelling. “I think this kind of reporting is essential,” Woodard said, “and perhaps the most important contribution a newspaper can make to their readers and community.”
In recent years, other small papers have been recognized for their investigations — the Bristol Herald Courier’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into natural-gas royalties and the Concordia Sentinel’s ongoing investigations into a Louisiana Klan murder come to mind. These are the stories that journalism — and communities — need more of; they’re reminders of why we need journalists.
“Watchdog reporting is the most important thing we do. We do probing journalism on behalf of Maine’s citizens so that they know what their government is doing and how it affects their lives, and we are not going to let a gag order from the governor or anyone else prevent us from fulfilling that duty,” Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram Managing Editor Steve Greenlee said via email.
“We in the journalism industry operate in a time of tight resources, but our most important responsibility is to inform citizens about what those in power are doing. Watchdog journalism is the top priority, our most important mission. If we don’t do that, we risk becoming irrelevant.”
Woodard credited Greenlee and Executive Editor Cliff Schechtman, saying he was “enormously supportive and helped focus the narratives.” Staffer Brian Robitaille created the layout of the project and helped create headlines for it, while Michael Fisher created the graphics.
“I feel fortunate to be working with these people and in a news organization that’s committed to this kind of time-consuming watchdog journalism — and in my native state, no less,” Woodard said.
Reaction to the investigation
On Tuesday, Republican Governor Paul LePage ordered all state employees to stop talking to Maine Today Media’s Portland Press Herald, the Morning Sentinel and the Kennebec Journal.
Governor Spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett told the Press Herald that Maine Today Media “had made it clear that it opposed this administration.’ She declined to elaborate, saying that responses from the administration could be gleaned from Associated Press reports or through document requests via the Freedom of Access Act.”
Aho has disputed the investigation’s findings, saying her former work as a lobbyist had no impact on her role as DEP commissioner.
The Portland Press Herald reports that, by contrast, Democrats have said the findings in the investigation are “troubling.”
Greenlee said that, overall, reader response has been “overwhelmingly positive and supportive of our journalism.”
Neither he nor Schechtman seem especially worried about the gag order.
“Our mission is to shine the light on how government impacts the lives of Mainers,” Schechtman told the Press Herald. “No threats of gag orders from the LePage administration will stop us from doing probing journalism on behalf of citizens.”