Calls are mounting for an investigation into an alleged “data registry” created illegally by Maine State Police to track the personal information and whereabouts of gun owners and peaceful protesters. Trooper George Loder, 50, filed a whistleblower lawsuit in federal court against the Maine Intelligence Analysis Center (MIAC) and its supervisors. Loder claimed in the suit he was demoted after telling his bosses the center was illegally collecting and maintaining data on Maine residents who applied for gun purchases at dealers, protested, and who worked at a Maine international summer camp for Israeli and Arab students. The program is also accused of illegally retaining license plate information of vehicles registered in Maine that traveled in and out of the state. The suit’s damning claims have thrust the little-known MIAC in the national spotlight, cast now as a state-sponsored mass surveillance program. While the suit doesn’t allege what the information was used for, the implications are frightening for constitutional rights and justifiable under no circumstances: State police spied on Maine residents and gathered personal information without a search warrant while those individuals exercised their First and Second Amendment rights and were not suspected of committing any crimes.
The suit alleges the center’s staff gathered and kept information collected from social media platforms about people who peacefully protested in September 2018 against a power company lobbying against solar power use in Maine. It claims the agency also collected information related to the social and political activity of staff at Seeds of Peace, a summer camp in Otisfield. The Main legislature in 2017 barred any state agency from creating lists and databases of legal gun owners, and federal law mandates that such information be destroyed within 24 hours of processing. State police are only allowed to maintain a database of information that can be searched to determine if a person is prohibited from purchasing a firearm. The suit alleges that information was instead stored indefinitely in the clandestine database for later access by law enforcement. Loder also went to the Maine Human Rights Commission with his complaint. That organization is still investigating Loder’s claims, which were brought to their desk before the Trooper filed suit.
Now calls to probe the alleged de facto ‘registry’ are growing. Executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine David Trahan said an independent investigation into the data collection and storage should be done “Sooner rather than later. If they’re doing this, then somebody’s job should be on the line and I don’t know what the other consequences should be,” he said. “It’s very concerning. Holy cow.” Officials have been mum on the issue. Maine State Police issued a brief statement refusing to comment. Governor Janet Mills, who was attorney general in 2017 and 2018, the time when the suit alleges the information was stored, did not issue a comment by press time. Attorney general Aaron Frey’s office issued only a written statement indicating they’d dispute the allegations in court. Former governor Paul LePage was quick to distance himself from the allegations, indicating he did not direct illegal surveillance of any Maine residents. “I hope and trust the court proceedings will shine light on this,” he said.
Representative Charlotte Warren, a Democrat and co-chair of the legislature’s criminal justice committee, said the allegations deserve a full review and a “completely transparent process.” She said the committee should call on Public Safety Commission Mike Sauschuck to testify at a public hearing once the state’s legislature returns to session. State Senators Susan Deschambault and Kim Rosen declined to comment on the pending investigation while Rosen supported the inquiry. “But I think the investiation needs to go further, and they do need an outside investigation,” she said. The American Civil Liberties Union also called for an investigation into Loder’s claims. The nonprofit agency has been a longtime critic of the Maine Intelligence Analysis Center, which was formed in 2006 to assist intelligence sharing between local, state, and federal agencies.
Zachary Heiden, an ALCU director in Maine, called the allegations “extremely serious. The Department of Public Safety should conduct an internal investigation and should publish the results; the governor should appoint an independent body to investigate the allegations; and the Maine Legislature should exercise its oversight responsibility,” he said. “These are incredibly serious allegations, with implications for the fundamental rights of all Mainers, and they demand a serious response.”
The suit will ask that the court order the center to cease its alleged illegal activities. Loder is seeking unspecified damages. The state trooper was hired by Maine State Police in 1994, where he served until early 2014, when he was assigned to with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. Three years later, Loder expressed concern about activities at MIAC when all state police personnel were given access to the agency’s files by Loder’s supervisor, St. Michael Johnston.
“Believing these disclosures were made in error and violation of the law, Loder called Sgt. Johnston and expressed his concern that such disclosures were illegal,” the complaint alleged. “Johnston became annoyed and stated, ‘They (confidential informants) chose to cooperate with the police.’” Once Johnston began supervising the center, he allegedly ordered Loder to participate in a weekly conference call and share information about ongoing FBI investigations, which Loder claimed was against FBI policy. Later, in May 2018, Loder was reassigned to work a desk job at an Augusta precinct two hours from his home in Scarborough, where he would oversee the MIAC’s database. Loder asked for a transfer a major crimes unit but was told he would need to interview for the position, an unusual practice that is against internal state police policy.
“Loder told Ireland and Johnston if his only option was to participate in the MIAC’s illegal activities or face progressive discipline, then they were forcing him out of the state police and would force him to file a grievance,” the complaint said. He subsequently took a medical leave of absence and returned to the state police as a trooper.