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Steven Rowe

A man widely believed to be interested in becoming Maine’s next governor, Democratic Attorney General Steven Rowe, is refusing to defend the state’s Freedom of Access Act from a court ruling that would destroy the state’s open-government law almost entirely.

The ruling — that a three-man commission appointed by Rowe can keep its records secret because it was not a government body engaged in government business — is being appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, with the support of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.

If upheld, the ruling would allow Rowe — and any other government official — to “outsource” official business to a purportedly “independent” group of handpicked appointees, in complete certainty that the group’s actions will never become public.

The dust-up centers on the 1989 conviction of then-31-year-old farmer Dennis Dechaine for the 1988 rape and murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry, in Bowdoin. Dechaine was sent to prison for life, but a group of citizens who believe he is innocent have subsequently reviewed as much of the evidence in the case as possible — and have taken their efforts to the Legislature and through the courts to overrule repeated refusals from Rowe’s office to turn over documents. One member of the group, James Moore, a retired agent of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, has published two books detailing this investigation and the evidence he has found.

Even without access to crucial documents, Moore’s research raised enough questions in lawmakers’ minds that in 2003 they passed a law specifically forcing Rowe to open his office’s files to the public. And, in 2004, when Rowe violated that law by failing to hand over everything, Moore took him to court and won, getting copies of previously withheld state evidence — including information kept from the jury. Moore and others believe these documents prove Dechaine could not have killed Cherry.

Which brings us back to the Freedom of Access Act. After being forced to release his records, Rowe appointed the three-man commission to investigate the allegations, from Moore and others, of police and prosecutorial misconduct in the case. Rowe promised Dechaine’s advocates that he would publicize the commission’s report, which he did. It’s available on the AG’s Web site even today. It concludes that there was no “substantive merit” to the allegations of wrongdoing.

But when Moore asked to see the commission’s supporting evidence — the documents they reviewed and the notes from interviews they conducted — the commissioners refused, claiming that they are not, in fact, a government agency required to open their files.

In July, a judge agreed with them, but Moore has appealed that decision to the state’s highest court, arguing that the principles of open government demand their files be made public.

Rowe could, at this point, throw his weight behind Moore’s appeal and argue on behalf of the people of Maine that the Freedom of Access Act is gutted by the July ruling. But the attorney general, who has been selected four consecutive times by the Legislature to be the state’s chief law-enforcement officer, and who has once been formally asked by a resolution of the Maine House to support a retrial for Dechaine, appears to be on the side of secrecy. He is refusing to argue — in court or elsewhere — that the commission’s records should be made public.

Despite the fact that Rowe, in his memo appointing the commissioners, wrote that the group would be performing a “very important public service,” he now apparently supports the position that the report was not, in fact, the product of a public body.

Rowe did not return multiple calls seeking comment for this story.

“Presumably what [the commission] found makes the officials look good,” says Moore, professing confusion about why the commissioners have refused to open their files, and why the AG’s office has not gotten involved.

The MCLU is more direct about the long-term consequences of Rowe’s inaction: “The court order, unless overturned on appeal, creates a template by which public officials can dodge Freedom of Access laws by transferring their work to committees outside the scope of the Freedom of Access Act,” says Sigmund Schutz, from the Portland law firm Preti Flaherty, who is helping the MCLU with the case.

While we can lament his lack of resolve as attorney general, we can also act on it should Rowe ever appear on a ballot for governor.

Related: The 11th Annual Muzzle Awards, Muzzle mania, Gagging Baran’s lawyers — for justice or politics?, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Appellate Trials, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Dennis Dechaine,  More more >
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Gov’t secrecy is fine with Maine’s attorney general
Wow, this article has gotten it all wrong and the fact that you question Mr. Rowe's "resolve" is laughable. I have always really enjoyed reading the Phoenix but this article really disgusted me. I would like to see you write an article in which you praise Maine's hardworking government officials like Mr. Rowe for their tireless efforts to do good work for the people of Maine instead of bashing them by writing stories you have only bothered to cover one side of. I for one hope to see Steve Rowe's name on the ballot and if it is, you can guarantee I will be casting my vote for him.
By 207girl on 10/11/2007 at 11:54:18
Gov’t secrecy is fine with Maine’s attorney general
"Wow, this article has gotten it all wrong", but no detail of what is wrong or why. When the fact came out that the commission had not spoken to anyone from the defense team, all impartiality in the report ceased, and hence, its reliability. Let's see, hand picked commission, one sided inveestigation, prejudiced report, a "believe it because we say so" attitude and now additional unaccountability. Mr. Rowe had requested the panel “to ensure continued public confidence in the Office of the Attorney General as well as other law enforcement agencies in the State of Maine.” He missed that goal
By seektruth on 10/14/2007 at 1:01:12
Gov’t secrecy is fine with Maine’s attorney general
To seektruth's comment: You obviously have been lucky enough not to have experienced the injustices in our crapshoot of a judicial system, nor the attorney general's laissez-faire attitude towards it. There's a name for the turning of one's back by officials on violations of constitutional rights - misprison of felony, sort of like treason. Rowe's office wrote back to me, saying they wouldn't comment on paperwork I sent them. The supposed contract didn't contain price, description of work, or mutual consent, but nine Maine judges upheld it as a valid enforceable contract. Ever hear of the Martha Mitchell effect?
By P on 01/03/2008 at 12:05:23
Gov’t secrecy is fine with Maine’s attorney general
It is interesting that there is mention of AG Steven Rowe being the ONLY AG in the U.S. who isn't elected or appointed, but SELECTED by SECRET BALLOT of the legislators. Everyone should be suspicious of the favors which keep him in office.... I have had two horrible experiences in ME regarding internet, mail, and email fraud by encouraging cottage owners to lie about the conditions of rentals. One rental was advertised in the Lincolnville/Belfast/Camden Chamber of Commerce website as "the perfect cottage over-looking the ocean." When I arrived for a 4 month stay, it was a tool shed/shack behind the owner's huge house and I had a grand view of her garage. I also had NO hot water and the shower stall was metal slime. When I tried the steps to enter the shack, the entire step/porch collapsed, taking me with it. I ended up with her evicting me immediately, keeping my upfront money, and leaving me in a cast (broken wrist, broken tooth, and numerous other injuries) I was left without a place to stay -- and a vandalized car in her private driveway --and had to pay a huge amount for a hotel while I recovered for two months since I was there to work...and couldn't drive with the cast. The landlord/household owner is a wealthy stockbroker and obviously no one even questioned her ad, emails, and letter with a fake picture of this wonderful cottage. The second rental was equally disastrous: a Round Pond cottage with a doctored photo on CyberRentals with NO kitchen usage (broken pipes) and a huge no-path muddy/unmowed hill to get to and from the cottage...and NO lights to get from the place to park to the cottage. It had been called a "camp" before, said the Code Enforcement officer, who also almost broke his ankle when leaving the place on the gapping holes between rocks. But, he wouldn't dare tell the AG or the police or anyone else about the fraudulent communication between the landlord and me...or his knowledge of the fraudulent rental. Everyone is afraid of the AG, governor, and all officials. WHY?? The problem is that any lie is OK when dealing especially with elderly and handicapped renters, for the need for tourists in the summertime is essential for Maine's economy. That does not excuse Rowe's refusal to even respond to letters, emails, and telephone calls. The governor was also not interested, nor was any official in Maine. No attorney would take the case, always referring to Maine's disinterest in what happens to tourists. However, I have had contact with other victims of Maine's untenable attitude toward fraudulent dealings in any real estate situation in which citizens of Maine are also adversely effected. No one in Maine officialdom cares one whit what happens to anyone who doesn't pay off for the kind of "favors" that the legislators must get for selecting Rowe over the years. There's something very rotten in Maine, and it stinks throughout the country as more victims come forth to tell their stories....
By corruption in Maine on 02/10/2008 at 3:05:56
Gov’t secrecy is fine with Maine’s attorney general
"Rotten" pretty much sums it up. But it will come back to get them very soon. Keep the faith. ;-) //
By Outsider on 02/10/2008 at 8:18:36
Gov’t secrecy is fine with Maine’s attorney general
LOL...of course...there may be a lot more to it: //
By Outsider on 02/11/2008 at 12:46:12
Gov’t secrecy is fine with Maine’s attorney general
I just got a VERY INTERSTING comment on one of my posts. It seems that <b>Maine's Attorney General G Steven Rowe KNEW ABOUT the Peter Degennaro/Caldi Builders situation well before the scams happened.</b> He remained quiet. //
By Outsider on 02/20/2008 at 12:18:25
Gov’t secrecy is fine with Maine’s attorney general
By Outsider on 02/20/2008 at 12:19:20
Gov’t secrecy is fine with Maine’s attorney general
Wow! AG Steve Rowe doing something underhanded,I am shocked not really. All this guy is interested in is advancing his political career. I think the Department of Justice should investigate him.
By Concerned Citizen on 02/25/2008 at 6:47:14
Gov’t secrecy is fine with Maine’s attorney general
The DOJ should probably investigate the entire state. Apparently, Maine's right up there (or down there)with places like Louisiana and Georgia. And even....(gasp!) New Jersey! ;-)
By Outsider on 03/03/2008 at 8:29:25
Gov’t secrecy is fine with Maine’s attorney general
You can see the documented evidence of official misconduct from court records and official files at: // Look at the evidence and judge for yourself.
By Jim Moore on 05/02/2008 at 12:00:10

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