A Tale of Dirty Tricks So Bizarre:

Susan Collins v. Public Record


Public records are the lifeblood of a democracy. They are also the lifeblood of a free media.

Public records are used by reporters as the basis for many, if not most, of the stories they write. Court proceedings, accident reports, arrest records, real estate transfers, vital statistics, census data, and minutes of municipal meetings are all fodder for news accounts.

Public records also tell us how candidates for elected office have conducted their public lives. Do they have conflicts of interest, a criminal record, big holdings in – or big debts to – companies or industries they hope to (or already) regulate?

Public records let you follow the money.

When a political candidate proclaims in the course of the campaign that her public records are off-limits to her opponent, the media ought to jump on that fact like black flies on a fisherman.

When a segment of the media not only does not jump on that fact, but actually reinforces and validates the candidate’s contention that public records are sacrosanct and anyone who looks at them are vile creatures, the public, and the rest of the press, should be on guard.

That was the situation in 1996, during Maine’s U.S. Senate race, when candidate (now Senator) Susan Collins proclaimed loud and long in the final weeks of the campaign that her privacy had been violated by a researcher hired to look into her public record.

The charge was debunked by most of Maine’s media, but the Bangor Daily News, whose nearly-exclusive distribution area includes half of Maine’s 16 counties, actually led the charge in the other direction, promoting the candidate’s drumbeat of privacy violation right up to election day.

Were the charges repeatedly made by one of Maine’s largest daily newspapers the deciding factor in that race? We will never know for sure. We do know that the BDN writers thought they were, and crowed about it in their election wrap-ups.

We also know that a libel suit resulted from the BDN’s coverage in those final weeks of the campaign, filed by the public records researcher, Robert Norris, who sued for defamation of character. A trial was held in July 1999, providing revealing, and in some cases astonishing, testimony about the collusion between Collins, her campaign staff, and the Bangor Daily News.

Surprisingly, the defendant newspaper in that suit was the only member of the media to cover that trial. Not surprisingly, the politically explosive testimony that came out under oath did not make it into the BDN’s newspaper accounts. That mid-summer trial ended in a hung jury. A second trial was scheduled to begin that fall, with Sen. Collins to be called as a witness. But a settlement was reached between the parties just weeks before the second trial was to begin.

In this book, Jean has connected the dots. She looks at how Maine’s largest daily newspapers covered the 1996 U.S. Senate campaign in Maine, starting with the allegations in the Republican primary of baby-sitter sex abuse. She then documents the regional differences in the coverage of the fall campaign, focusing on the “private investigator” charges. And finally, she compares newspaper accounts of the events that campaign season, including Candidate Collins’ public statements that conflicted with the sworn testimony from the trial.

Ours is not a casual interest. Jean has a unique inside perspective on this race: not only as a former U.S. Senate candidate who lost to Joe Brennan in the 1996 Democratic primary that same year, but also as a former reporter, Hancock County bureau chief and copy editor for the Bangor Daily News.

I spent 26 years at the BDN, as a reporter, columnist and editor, including stints as Maine Editor and State Editor, during which time I helped direct the paper’s politial coverage. We both have a solid knowledge of the inner workings of the Maine press. This combination of Jean’s research and our combined institutional memory is a behind-the-scenes account of how a desperate candidate was willing to sabotage a basic right of democracy to portray herself as a victim in an attempt to win at all costs.

Much of the material in this book has been available for several years on-line on Jean’s web page: www.jeanhay.com.
Jean did the preliminary analysis in 1997 as an independent study project for the Political Science Dept. at the University of Maine in Orono, where she was finishing up her degree work after a 30-year hiatus. Her professor, Dr. Kenneth Palmer, urged her to consider publishing it. Jean posted it on her web page in early 1998. As the years passed, Jean continued to follow this story. Updated information, particularly about the libel trial, was the focus of several political columns originally published in the Aroostook Democrat in northern Maine, and also posted on-line on her web page.

This book contains all of that detail, plus many more excerpts from the trial testimony and from published newspaper reports.

This book also documents several journalistic failures, both ethical and professional. One big disappointment is that after this story broke in 1996 not one member of the media actually went to Boston to get a copy of the public record in question. Only two people ever sought this document – Robert Norris and Jean Hay. We know that because we checked the public records.

That public record is now gone, having been destroyed after five years as allowed under Massachusetts state law. But you’ll find it reproduced here, so you can judge for yourself whether it was as big a deal as Susan Collins and the BDN made it out to be.

We would like to thank the Kennebec Journal and at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram for permission to reprint columns by Davis Rawson and Steve Campbell (with the required notation that permission to reprint in no way conveys endorsement). Thanks also to Robert Norris for permission to reprint his op-ed piece that was crucial to his settlement agreement with the Bangor Daily News, and to attorney Thomas Watson for making the trial transcripts available.

The Bangor Daily News articles that are the focus of this book are public records themselves by virtue of being introduced as evidence in the libel trial.

David Bright, editor
June 24, 2002