With the courts backed up, a deputy attorney general said the fight over the files related to child deaths could last into next year.
In this Jan. 17, 2019, photo, Republican state Reps. Amy Arata of New Gloucester and her father, Richard Bradstreet of China, discuss legislation in the House chamber at the State House in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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A struggle between the Legislature’s watchdog committee and the administration of Gov. Janet Mills came to a head Wednesday when the panel voted to sue the state to comply with subpoena allowing lawmakers themselves — not just their staff — to view confidential records.

It is a key part of the committee’s long-standing investigation of Maine’s child welfare system. In fits and starts, it has been under scrutiny since 2018 after a spate of child deaths. This crop of lawmakers ramped it up last year after the summer deaths of four children, including 3-year-old Maddox Williams, whose mother was found guilty of murder this week.

The standoff between the branches has brewed since the summer, when the state denied a request from lawmakers to view child welfare files on those four cases. Attorney General Aaron Frey cited an interpretation of state law that allows the watchdog committee’s staff to view confidential records but not lawmakers themselves. Staff have been given the documents.

This has long been the protocol for legislative probes, but lawmakers have argued that they should be able to view them to help frame potential reforms. It culminated in a September subpoena from the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee that is now going to court after Wednesday’s 8-1 vote.

With the courts backed up, a deputy attorney general told the committee that the case could last into next year. Lawmakers will be asking the court system to expedite the case over the subpoena. At the same time, they will likely try to change Maine law after the new Legislature is seated in January to allow lawmakers to see confidential documents as a matter of course, something that could win bipartisan approval.

Republicans have been most bullish on taking the Democratic governor’s administration to court. The one who opposed doing it was outgoing Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, a co-chair of the panel who said that the problem would best be solved by the Legislature instead of burdening the court.

But Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, the other co-chair, voted for it and said it is important to push the issue before this group of lawmakers leaves Augusta and gives way to the next one.

“That’s what I think the urgency is about,” she said.

The move comes at a sensitive political time, with Mills facing former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, in the Nov. 8 election. His state party sent out an alert on the dispute going to court on Thursday, saying the governor was “getting sued by members of both parties for refusing to turn over information on tragic child deaths.”

It is “frustrating” that the committee’s work has gone on this long, said Rep. Amy Arata of New Gloucester, the top House Republican on the panel. Williams’ grandmother was in the committee room, and Arata sensed that it had frustrated her as well. Arata said she had not seen her party’s alert, but she framed the dispute as one between branches and not about politics.

“There’s show horses and there are work horses, and I’m a work horse,” she said.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...