Lawsuit: Maine trooper was retaliated against for reporting police surveillance of citizens

A federal lawsuit alleges the trooper was retaliated against for calling out illegal practices by an intelligence-gathering center run by the state police

Matt Byrne
Portland Press Herald

WASHINGTON — 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.

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.

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.

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

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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