Dec. 16—The Maine State Police will conduct an outside review of data-collection practices at a secretive police intelligence unit after it was accused of violating federal privacy regulations during a federal civil trial.
The external review would come after a federal jury found state police retaliated against a retired trooper who blew the whistle on what he believed were illegal information collection practices at the Maine Information and Analysis Center, the state’s so-called Fusion Center.
A spokeswoman for the agency said details will not be finalized until the agency has a new colonel, perhaps as soon as January. Col. John Cote retired in September.
“As for what our review will entail and what outside entity will do that review, we are considering our options at this time and waiting until we have a new colonel in place before we finalize any plans,” said Maine State Police spokeswoman Shannon Moss.
Trooper George Loder, who retired in March, alleged in a lawsuit that police had collected and stored information about law-abiding citizens who were not connected with suspected criminal activity, including political protesters exercising their First Amendment rights.
“Although we have reviewed the MIAC’s processes and databases in the past and have been comfortable that the Center is compliant with Federal Law, State Law and Fusion Center best practices, we continually strive to improve our operations in the MIAC and increase transparency when possible,” wrote Lt. Col. Brian Scott in an email to the Bangor Daily News, which first reported Thursday that the center’s policies would be reviewed.
“To that end, we are committed to conducting another review of the MIAC’s daily operations to include a specific outside review of the ‘Activity Report’ that was raised during the trial,” Scott said.
Loder said he resisted instructions from state police superiors to share information with them about his work on a federal anti-terrorism task force where he had been assigned. Most information the center gathered was funneled into a database known simply as the activity report, a daily log of the work conducted by MIAC staff that’s searchable and never purged.
After a five-day trial, a jury found Loder was the victim of retaliation and ordered the state to pay him $300,000. The allegations of improper information collection played a major role in the trial, although the legal issue at play involved an employment dispute, meaning there was no verdict on whether the practices were actually illegal.
In testimony, it was revealed that the MIAC collected and retained information about residents who had testified at a public hearing in Farmington in opposition to the controversial NCEC transmission line, but who were not suspected of any criminal activity.
It also conducted background checks on counselors at the Seeds of Peace camp, a summer program to bring youth from conflict zones together to promote civil discourse and nonviolence. The checks were conducted at the request of the camp, but state police retained the names and other details.
The executive order by then-Gov. John Baldacci convening the MIAC in 2006 explicitly calls for it to follow relevant federal privacy laws. But over time, an attorney for the state police and supervisors of the unit determined that the privacy regulations did not apply.
Trial testimony pointed to a circular discussion: The state police’s former attorney said he had consulted with the MIAC’s leadership before he became comfortable concluding that the agency’s practices were legal and the federal regulations did not apply.
The supervisors, in their own testimony, said they became confident the arrangement was proper after consulting with the former staff attorney. It’s unclear whether the state police or the staff attorney ever solicited outside advice about whether their practices were in fact legal.
Fusion centers were created after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 to enhance cooperation and communication between local, state and federal police to prevent future attacks. Maine’s fusion center began operation 2005 and had little outside oversight for years. The focus of the unit’s work has shifted to all threats and crimes, and no longer focuses on terrorism.