Advocates seek investigation of State Police surveillance

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine called Friday for an investigation into allegations of illegal surveillance made in a federal whistleblower lawsuit, while the state's public safety commissioner and police chief went on the defense.

A trooper claims in his federal lawsuit filed last week that a Maine State Police unit illegally gathered and stored intelligence on gun buyers, power line protesters, and employees of a camp for Israeli and Arab teens. It also alleges the state illegally stored license plate data.

The head of a gun rights group and several lawmakers joined the ACLU in expressing concern about the allegations raised about the Maine Intelligence Analysis Center, a division of the State Police.

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck and State Police Col. John Cote declined to comment on specific allegations in the lawsuit but defended the practices of the so-called “fusion center” created to collect, analyze and share intelligence between the state and federal government after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Both expressed confidence “that our fusion center is operating in accordance with applicable laws, policies, procedures and best practices that safeguard people’s privacy, civil rights and civil liberties,” they said in a written statement.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey disputed the lawsuit's allegations but had nothing else to say, a spokesperson said.

Lindsay Crete, a spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, said the allegations “will be heard through the court system, which the governor hopes will provide a full airing of the facts.”

State Trooper George Loder alleges in the lawsuit that the State Police created what amounted to a “registry” of gun owners by indefinitely retaining federal background check data relating to legal firearm purchases.

Federal law calls for the information be destroyed within 24 hours, and the Maine Legislature had specifically barred any agency from creating a list of legal gun owners.

The claims in the lawsuit are so inflammatory that an investigation should be done “sooner rather than later," said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

“We’re in an election year. As things go on, legislators are going to get involved because their constituents are going to be calling them and asking what the heck is going on?” he told WVOM-FM on Friday. “It’s a very volatile issue. It’s a tinderbox."

The Maine ACLU called for an internal investigation by State Police, legislative oversight and an independent investigation.

“These allegations should trigger investigation at all levels,” legal director Zachary Heiden said.

Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, for whom Mills served as attorney general, said in a statement that he doesn’t recall “being made aware of at any time, illegal surveillance of any Mainer.” He trusts that the court proceedings “will shine light on this," he said.

“We must be very careful to retain a dose of skepticism in employee-employer disputes, especially when it comes to one employee casting blame on their co-workers," he said. “In this instance we should allow the courts to do their job.”

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The headline on this story has been corrected to say that advocates are calling for an investigation, not lawmakers.