Government secrecy destroys even the best ideas

Earlier this year, The Washington Post added a new slogan to its flag: “Democracy dies in darkness.”

It’s an expression that the paper, and one of its most famous journalists, Bob Woodward, started using regularly during the campaign for the presidency last year.

The sentiment has been mocked and there’s been speculation that it was a reaction to the lies and obfuscation of then presidential candidate Donald Trump – and now President Trump.

Fights over immigration, health care and the budget have inspired millions of activists, who have taken to the streets and engaged in politics with an entirely new level of commitment. The examples are legion: the Women’s March, The Resistance, Indivisible. There’s a surge of new candidates running for office, including an amazing number of women.

The outrage, the anger and the fear are all real – and they are focused.

With every new, dangerous attack coming from Trump, there is a backlash of activism standing up to him.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Maine Gov. Paul LePage at a March 2016 campaign rally in Portland. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

The response from government has been to burrow into the sand, and hide public information.

And that’s why the recommitment of the Post, The New York Times and journalists across the country is more important than ever. In Maine, the state’s two largest news organizations have shown a commitment to both long-form journalism and public accountability and transparency.

Freedom of Access laws will never motivate people to take to the streets. But Maine’s Freedom of Access Act and laws like it are the key to understanding what our government is doing and what it’s not doing.

Government cannot operate in the dark. But right now, in Washington and in Augusta, the norms of transparency are being ignored. And more importantly, the law is being ignored.

During one of his weekly, unchallenged talk-radio love fests last week, Gov. Paul LePage complained about the burden that Maine’s law requiring public documents to be available to the public has caused for his office.

The governor says he considers the volume of FOAA requests an attack, orchestrated by his political opponents and the media to stymie his administration.

First a caveat: You cannot and should not believe anything that LePage says on the radio – or really, in any forum – unless you can independently verify the information.

The governor is known to lie, dissemble and exaggerate. Regularly.

He challenged reporters to “get their little backsides up to my office” to review requested documents in person.

Portland Press Herald reporter Scott Thistle accepted the challenge and showed up at the office. Alas, he was turned away empty handed.

The record clearly demonstrates that the LePage administration, and particularly his Department of Health and Human Services, consistently and repeatedly ignore the law and refuse to release information to the public.

There’s a perfect example in the Bangor Daily News this week. DHHS refuses to say how many beds it has to serve people with disabilities if they find themselves in crisis.

There’s a law on the books that sets the standard and a law that requires them to release public information. The administration appears to be ignoring both.

LePage hid behind the State Police when his office refused to release information about his travel expenses.

The ACLU of Maine is suing the administration for the way it conducts government affairs on social media, denying citizens their First Amendment rights. The organization took the same path trying to uncover the governor’s binder full of drug dealers.

The LePage administration won’t even release public information to lawmakers.

There have been lawsuits and findings. DHHS even fired a public records coordinator for – wait for it – releasing public records.

LePage and Trump have tried to turn public sentiment against journalists and the media. They have used the words “fake news” to the point that it really has no meaning.

They lump reporters into the same category as their political opponents. Deride them; call them names; even invoke violence against them.

I don’t always get along with the reporters I work with. Sometimes they drive me crazy. They’re human. They make mistakes. They get spun. The same thing happened to me when I was a reporter.

And FOAA can be a real pain to comply with. When I worked in the governor’s office, I remember one FOAA in particular – from the ACLU – which took me personally nearly 40 hours to compile, and other people many hours more. It was grueling work. But there was never a question that the public had a right to see the documents.

Political leaders cannot be allowed to govern shrouded in shadow. Even good policies carry that poisonous stain.

As every Stephen King fan knows, bad things happen in the dark. Evil lurks. Surreptitious behavior blossoms, and the truth is lost. That’s happening right now in Washington and Augusta.

On the Maine FOAA website, the purpose of the law is stated clearly: “The public’s right to information about government activities lies at the heart of a democratic government.”

Yes, it does. And it’s time everyone — including the governor — remembers that.


David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at