A secretive intelligence office run by the Maine State Police has kept an illegal database of gun owners, illegally conducted surveillance on peace activists and regularly circumvented federal privacy laws, a federal whistleblower’s lawsuit alleges.

Maine State Police Trooper George Loder says he was demoted and suffered professional retaliation when he called out what he said was illegal activity at the Maine Information and Analysis Center, an Augusta-based state police operation known as a fusion center. Loder alleges the fusion center regularly broke privacy laws, overstepped its legal authority and often investigated people associated with lawful protests, sometimes using flimsy legal pretexts – for example, that protesters might litter during a demonstration – to justify prying into private lives.

This photo taken in 2015 shows the Maine Department of Public Safety, home of the so-called fusion center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

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 conduct background checks on people seeking to buy guns through federally licensed gun dealers, illegally retained their personal information, creating a de-facto gun ownership registry, in violation of federal law.

While the lawsuit contains the allegations of improper and illegal data collection by the police, its legal focus is on the alleged demotion and retribution that Loder suffered at the hands of his superiors – an employment law issue that has no bearing on the policies and practices related to collecting intelligence information.

The office of Attorney General Aaron Frey has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit in court. A spokesman for the office, Marc Malon, declined to be interviewed about the lawsuit or the alleged data collection practices. Frey serves on an advisory board that’s responsible for ensuring that the Information and Analysis Center’s staff does not overstep legal boundaries and abides by a 2019 privacy policy.

The commissioner of public safety, Michael Sauschuck, also declined to comment, other than to say that the Department of Public Safety “disputes the allegations” and plans to respond accordingly in court. He referred questions – including all general inquires about the Information and Analysis Center – to the Attorney General’s Office.

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 a public records request filed Thursday by the Portland Press Herald.

In this 2016 photo, Lt. Scott Ireland opens a door at the Maine Information and Analysis Center at the Department of Public Safety in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

The Human Rights Commission documents describe how Loder became irate when he learned that he would be transferred from his position on an 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 documents also describe how, when Loder was asked to report to an office in Augusta after his transfer, he did not show up on the appointed day. When his supervisors called him, he said he was washing his car and had to meet with someone later in the day. Loder’s supervisors demanded he report immediately to their office in Augusta, and when he arrived, Loder became aggressive during a meeting and repeatedly interrupted his superiors and lost his temper.

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.

Zachary Heiden, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the allegations remind him of the noxious and illegal practices from a century ago that prompted the founding of the ACLU in 1920, when government agencies worked to undermine the nascent labor movement, and in later decades, when government and law enforcement targeted political organizers associated with the civil rights movement and the movement against the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

Heiden said he wants to see the Legislature, through its oversight role of the Department of Public Safety, open a public inquiry into the allegations, and called for government officials to answer whether the Information and Analysis Center has engaged in practices in the past that it now prohibits. Heiden also said the allegations warrant independent, non-governmental investigation.

“There’s always a need for meaningful oversight of law enforcement, but that’s especially true when law enforcement takes on broader and more extensive powers, such as the power to collect and store and share information about people’s private activities,” Heiden said. “I think the department of public safety can talk about what it does and doesn’t do, that it doesn’t conduct improper surveillance.”

Messages left for Bruce Lewis, the head of security for CMP and a member of the Information and Analysis Center’s advisory board, which is charged with ensuring the agency does not violate privacy provisions, were not returned.

But a spokeswoman for CMP, Catharine Hartnett, refused to answer whether CMP received intelligence from the fusion center related to the clean energy corridor opposition group. Instead, she provided a statement that did not address questions posed to the company, including inquiries about how Lewis’ role on the board helped ensure proper oversight.

“CMP operates company security under high standards and with strict guidelines on the collection and use of information regarding the safeguarding of its personnel and critical infrastructure assets,” the company said. “CMP cooperates with state and federal agencies that have responsibilities for law enforcement, including protecting critical infrastructure. CMP cannot and does not direct the activities of state or local law enforcement.”

In an emailed statement, Seeds of Peace spokesman Eric Kapenga said the organization has partnered with the Maine State Police since 2002 to conduct criminal history and sex offender registry searches on prospective camp counselors and to assist with security at the camp location, as is standard with any organization that serves youth across the country.

“Any information beyond criminal history or sex offender status was not communicated to Seeds of Peace at any point, and we have no knowledge of the allegations in this complaint,” Kapenga said.

Sandra Howard, director of the nonprofit group Say No to the New England Clean Energy Corridor, the group that was allegedly targeted by the fusion center in 2018, described the allegations as “chilling,” and said it was reminiscent of other aggressive tactics deployed by the utility in opposition to her group’s work.

“We now have tens of thousands of activists that oppose the corridor who are worrying about whether they’ve been spied on by private investigators and Maine law enforcement,” Howard said in a statement. “We certainly appreciate all our first responders do to keep us safe, especially in this unsettling time, and we are hopeful that this situation will be cleared up quickly and transparently.”

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court May 7 against Maine State Police Col. John Cote and two of Loder’s former supervisors, Lt. Scott Ireland, and Sgt. Michael Johnston, and asks for compensation and for Loder’s previous position to be restored.

The Maine Information and Analysis Center was created in 2006 by gubernatorial order to encourage information-sharing and collaboration between state and federal law enforcement agencies to stop large-scale criminal activity and terrorism. Because it receives federal funding, the center is bound to follow strict federal privacy laws limiting what citizen information police can collect and share without a warrant or court order, in addition to state privacy rules that also limit what information can be collected and shared.

Loder began interacting with the fusion center regularly in 2017 at weekly staff meetings, where he saw how state police “completely ignore” their own privacy policy, federal privacy laws, and “regularly (engage) in violations of state law, federal law, and rules of criminal procedure,” often collecting information that would typically require a judicial warrant or court order, the lawsuit says.

Loder has been a trooper since 1994, and worked for about a year at the fusion center in 2012 before he was reassigned in 2013 to a similar group run by the FBI, the state’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, according to the suit. In his position with the anti-terrorism task force, Loder straddled the state and federal law enforcement worlds, which required him to keep intelligence and information collected by federal authorities separate from information collected by state authorities.

While Loder was at all times a state police trooper and Maine employee, in some aspects of his position he reported to the FBI, and in other aspects he reported to Maine State Police supervisors. His access to federal law enforcement files and participation in federal intelligence analysis meant that Loder was expected to follow FBI guidelines as if he were a special agent, the lawsuit alleges.

The friction began when Loder started interacting regularly with the fusion center in November 2017, according to the suit. Johnston, a supervisor at the fusion center, asked that Loder begin sitting in on weekly meetings and pressured Loder to share confidential information collected by the FBI, in breach of privacy laws and internal policy that such requests to be made in writing, which generates a record that is entered into that investigation’s file, it says.

When Loder refused to comply and reported his concerns about what he believed were illegal surveillance practices, one of the supervisors threatened to charge Loder with insubordination and told Loder he needed to “get on board with the fusion center concept,” according to the lawsuit.

“At the end of the day you are still a member of the state police and I’m your supervisor,” Johnston told Loder, according to the suit, and questioned the “value of having a state police detective go around pretending to be an FBI Agent.”

The lawsuit revives longstanding criticism that Maine’s fusion center and others like it, with their unique supervisory structure and little public accountability or transparency, are ripe for abuse.

Maine State Police have refused to reveal what surveillance tools are being used by the center, citing an unusual Maine law that shields the information as confidential investigation methods. Maine legislators have proposed changes to state law to provide more transparency.

In 2015, then-Gov. Paul LePage enlisted the help of the fusion center to crack down on drug trafficking in the state, prompting renewed public interest in the group. That effort appears to track with one of allegations in lawsuit, that the fusion center has entered into agreements with government agencies in other states to gather their data collected from license plate readers. The data was then used to determine if Maine-registered vehicles made frequent or quick trips to cities known to be the source of illegal drugs, including New York City; Lawrence, Massachusetts; and Hartford, Connecticut, the lawsuit alleges.

The gubernatorial order that created the fusion center calls for a board to oversee its conduct, but the language does not stipulate how many people sit on the board or what their background or expertise should be. In 2015, the oversight board consisted of three members, but today it has a dozen people, including Cote and Johnston, who are defendants in the lawsuit.

Only three of the board members do not work in law enforcement or government. They are Tracey Collins, a private attorney; Michael Feldman, a member of the public; and Lewis, the head of security for Central Maine Power.

The fusion center website lists the board members’ names, but has no information on when or where they meet, what they discuss, or what decisions they have made or what issues they are considering. It’s also unclear if the board must follow open meeting laws, or is subject to Freedom of Access Act requests.

There are no publicly available board agendas on the agency’s website, and there is nothing that indicates how the board members were selected, who nominated them or what qualifications they must possess to be considered for the role.

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