Democrats on the joint standing Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Monday advanced a measure that would add a layer of oversight for a state police intelligence agency that has come under fire in recent months from privacy advocates and an internal whistleblower.

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

The amendment to an unrelated bill was proposed by Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, and Rep. Pinney Beebe-Center, D-Rockland, and would require staff from the Maine Information and Analysis Center to issue a report every March to the committee. The report would describe the center’s activities, including a twice-annual privacy audit implemented last year, giving legislators an annual forum to ask questions and delve into the secretive agency, which has functioned largely out of view of the public and lawmakers since 2006.

The Maine Information and Analysis Center is one of more than 70 so-called fusion centers in the United States that were created after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to help agencies prevent future attacks by sharing information. But many of the centers have since morphed into an omnibus law enforcement resource for local police investigating all crimes, including drug trafficking, gangs and in rare cases, domestic extremism.

The amendment was voted ought-to-pass by seven Democratic members of the committee, meaning it will go to the Legislature for an up-or-down vote before Gov. Janet Mills could sign or veto the legislation. The remaining six committee members, including five Republicans and one Democrat, have until Tuesday to register their votes.

The annual report would have to contain a narrative on the types of cases, crimes, incidents and reports the center handled in the previous year without compromising the work of the center or intruding on anyone’s privacy.

The oversight provision might be the first of its kind for a state legislature across the country, said one expert on fusion centers.

While the measure is far short of a total reappropriation of the center’s $800,000 annual budget that Warren has advocated for in the past – she believes the money would be better spent elsewhere – she said so long as the center is operating, she wants some measure of legislative involvement, regardless of who sits on the committee in the future. While Warren said she and other legislators are working behind the scenes to defund the center in the upcoming budget cycle, she knows that whatever happens, lawmakers will have a reason to think about and evaluate the center’s value.

“I cannot let it fall off the radar of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety committee again,” said Warren, who is the co-chair of the joint committee. “Even if all of the 13 members … don’t come back either because we didn’t get reelected or get assigned to another committee, they won’t be able to forget about it.”

The Maine Information and Analysis Center first came under scrutiny in May, when a state police trooper filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit alleging he suffered professional retaliation when he called out what he believed were unconstitutional and illegal practices at the center. The trooper, George Loder of Scarborough, alleged that MIAC staff kept an illegal registry of legal gun owners, and spied on peace activists and opponents of the CMP transmission line project to bring hydropower from Canada to the New England grid.

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck has defended the center’s staff and its practices. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck has defended the center’s staff and its practices. But Loder’s lawsuit drew sharp questions from lawmakers, and one month after the lawsuit, the center was thrust into the spotlight again, when thousands of the center’s intelligence documents were stolen and released to the public June 19, giving the first glimpse into the agency’s work product.

In response to questions, police have said the center is useful because it can quickly disseminate information among all levels of law enforcement, and gives small agencies in Maine a direct line to statewide and federal resources, such as police and criminal history databases and people-finding capabilities and other national networks of information about threats and crime.

Opponents say that fusion centers, at best, are a waste of taxpayer dollars, and at worst, a central element of the mass incarceration system, which depends in part on an aspect of police surveillance of citizens, said Brendan McQuade, an associate professor at the University of Southern Maine, who studies fusion centers and their role in the criminal-legal system. Some centers around the country possess powerful technology, such as facial recognition capabilities or license plate reader databases, and are often only self-policed with scant oversight by outsiders, McQuade said.

The nature of the work also means that the public cannot obtain information about the fusion centers’ activities because they deal with ongoing criminal investigations, or handle the personal identifying information of people who are being investigated, but are not yet accused of crimes – matters that are not public record.

McQuade said Warren’s amendment may be the first time in the nation that state legislators have sought some type of check on fusion center activities. McQuade said that if the measure is signed into law, it could be a political test case in the broader fight over the future of fusion centers across the country.

“It’s neither a clear beginning nor a clear end,” McQuade said. “I think it’s an opportunity for the MIAC to make its case, and establish its worth, and it’s also an opportunity for critics of the MIAC to renew the scandal. If you think of reforms in two ways, you can think of it as re-legitimizing the status quo … or it can be a push to gain power and push for more change.”

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