Two lawmakers say that a secretive state police intelligence unit needs more direct oversight from the Legislature and called for an investigation into allegations of improper and illegal data collection by the Maine Information and Analysis Center.

The call to action centers on allegations contained in a federal whistleblower lawsuit filed this month by a state trooper who alleges police spied on protesters and collected the names of legal gun owners, among other charges.

Sen. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Androscoggin, and Rep. Harold “Trey” Stewart, R-Presque Isle, who are members of party leadership in their chambers, released a joint statement Wednesday expressing their concern over the allegations in the suit, which was filed by state trooper George Loder of Scarborough.

“If true, (these allegations) would mean that the state police have been collecting information about Mainers for years without the authorization of the legislative branch,” Timberlake said in the statement. “Such a significant policy decision by the chief executive merits legislative oversight and a check on this power.”

Timberlake and Stewart suggest that the Government Oversight Committee, which has a balanced political composition and subpoena power, should take the lead in overseeing the constitutional responsibilities of the Maine Information and Analysis Center, also called the fusion center.

“I want to emphasize we’re not trying to make this political,” Timberlake said in an interview. “We just want to find out what’s happening and whether what this whistleblower said is true or not true.”

Any changes that are needed to state law to ensure proper oversight could be taken up after the facts come out, Timberlake said.

Stewart said that every agency within the executive branch, which includes the Department of Public Safety and Maine State Police, reports in some capacity to the Legislature, and questioned why the fusion center should be treated any differently.

“At a time when Mainers are already skeptical of the operations of state government, these allegations demand attention from the Legislature to ensure that the rights of Maine citizens aren’t being trampled upon under the familiar guise of ‘public safety,'” Stewart said in the statement. “While the agency was likely created with good intentions, it should not escape legislative review and direct oversight from the other branches of government.”

So far, state officials have declined to provide substantive answers to questions about the center’s operations and oversight, saying that federal court is the proper venue for a response.

Gov. Janet Mills’ office released a statement Wednesday but did not address questions about whether she would take any action herself within the executive branch to look into the whistleblower allegations.

“The governor is open to working with legislators in good faith to review any of the MIAC’s protocols and its role in public safety under all pertinent state and federal laws,” said Lindsay Crete, Mills’ spokeswoman. “However, the governor also believes it is appropriate to allow the pending case to proceed in the court system, which we hope will provide for a full airing of the facts that can help inform any other discussions.”

But a third lawmaker, Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham, says that the lack of a substantive response is cause for concern, and said it’s unfair for state officials to use ongoing litigation to “dodge” questions about the fusion center.

The lawsuit, Corey pointed out, deals with an employment law issue – whether Loder suffered discrimination – and therefore the courts may never address the issues of improper or illegal data collection.

“I feel like it’s our right to know whether this information was being kept,” Corey said. “I think we have the right to know these things. The lawsuit simply brought up what (Loder) felt was the cause of him being retaliated against, but that has absolutely nothing to do with keeping information that you have illegitimately or legitimately held onto. I think we certainly have a right to know if they were doing these things.”

Civil lawsuits, such as Loder’s, offer no guarantee that any fact-finding will occur or that information uncovered during the course of the suit will become public. Lawsuits often die on procedural grounds before the substance of the allegations are addressed.

And even in cases that advance to the fact-finding phase of a lawsuit known as discovery, there is no guarantee that the information elicited by attorneys will ever become public. Settlements of civil lawsuits are often confidential and feature provisions barring the release of discovery information, meaning any facts uncovered during the process could be permanently kept from public view.

Timberlake, Stewart and Corey join Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, a co-chair of the Legislature’s joint Criminal Justice and Public Safety committee, of which Corey is also a member, in criticizing the response to the lawsuit and the secretive way the fusion center conducts its business. Outside groups have also called for more transparency, including the ACLU of Maine.

Loder worked for five years as a state police detective assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force for Maine, where he interacted regularly with his state police counterparts at the fusion center. It was during those interactions that Loder alleges he learned of illegal data collection by police. Loder claims that when he spoke up against what he believed was illegal, he was retaliated against and suffered a demotion.

The lawsuit names Lt. Scott Ireland and Lt. Michael Johnston, who are the top managers at the center and were among the officers to whom Loder reported during his tenure.

Maine Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Sauschuck and Maine State Police Col. John Cote said the state would respond to the allegations in court, but also said the center operates within the boundaries of the law and follows best-practices to safeguard Mainers’ privacy and civil rights. Cote and Sauschuck said they had confidence in Ireland and Johnston. Sauschuck has declined to answer further questions about the center.

The lawsuit says that in September 2018 the fusion center targeted people demonstrating against the controversial Central Maine Power transmission line project, and shared what it learned about the activists with CMP. In other instances, it collected and retained information on counselors and volunteers for the group Seeds of Peace, which runs a camp in Maine for young people from conflict areas around the world who are encouraged to develop the skills and understanding needed to foster peace in their native lands.

Other alleged privacy violations include the illegal use of data collected from license plate readers maintained in other states to target suspected drug traffickers with Maine-registered vehicles. Loder’s lawsuit also says the state police, who facilitate federally mandated background checks on people seeking to buy guns through federally licensed gun dealers, illegally retained legal gun buyers’ personal information, creating a de facto gun ownership registry in violation of federal and state law.

Loder had previously filed his complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission, and the commission provided redacted copies of Loder’s complaint and the state’s reply in response to public records request filed last week by the Portland Press Herald.

The Human Rights Commission documents describe how Loder became irate when he learned that he would be transferred from his position on the anti-terrorism task force led by the FBI, which he served on for five years, and say that Loder, in multiple meetings with state police command staff, was unable to cite instances when the fusion center overstepped its legal authority.

The documents provided suggest that Loder was not making the accusations of illegal activity in good faith, which is one requirement under federal law to receive whistleblower protection, and brought the allegations only after he learned he would be transferred. In its response to Loder’s complaint, the state disputed his claim that he was demoted, saying that he requested a transfer to the lower position of trooper.

The state’s response to his complaint also denies that Loder ever voiced opposition to or called attention to the alleged illegal practices.

“At no time did (Loder) report to his supervisors at the MIAC that he thought he was being asked to share information in violation of federal laws, rules or FBI policies, nor did he report that MIAC was otherwise engaging in any activity that violated a law or rule,” Assistant Attorney General Valerie Wright wrote in the government’s response to his complaint.

The Human Rights Commission did not make a determination on the merits of Loder’s claim; he asked for and was granted a “right to sue” letter before the commission could take up the case. Asking for such a letter is a right protected by Maine statute, and gives complainants the option to move directly to litigation if they believe it’s in their interest.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.