Maine State Police Lt. Tyler Stevenson comes out of U.S. District Court in Portland on Monday. Stevenson oversees the Maine Information and Analysis Center and testified on the first day of the trial in a whistleblower lawsuit filed by retired Trooper George Loder, who accused the center of illegally gathering data on Mainers, something the state denies. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Lt. Tyler Stevenson called the meeting one of the most heated, unusual exchanges in his entire career with the Maine State Police.

He was present when retired Trooper George Loder told superiors in 2018 that he believed the Maine Information and Analysis Center, a secretive intelligence unit within the agency, was illegally collecting information about citizens, he testified Monday in federal court.

Loder struggled to articulate his concerns but grew so frantic that he became almost physically ill, recalled Stevenson, who now oversees the center. The meeting was like “none other” the lieutenant had been in. But he said he did not understand what Loder was alleging then and does not agree with it now.

“George was in a rant, just going off,” Stevenson said.

The scene was among the most striking from the first day of a jury trial in Loder’s whistleblower case against the state in U.S. District Court in Portland.

His lawyer began to lay out the case for why they believe the state police retaliated against him after he raised concerns about illegal activity inside the Maine Information and Analysis Center that the state has denied. None of the four witnesses associated with the center who testified Monday thought the center was engaged in illegal activity.

The unit, part of a national network of so-called fusion centers, serves as a law enforcement information hub to streamline communication between local, state and federal agencies and has long drawn criticism from civil liberties groups for infringing on the public’s privacy.

Loder sued the agency in May 2020, alleging his bosses forced him to take a voluntary demotion after pushing back against orders he felt were unlawful and speaking up against the agency. The claim now at the heart of the lawsuit is that his supervisors, then-Sgt. Michael Johnston and then-Lt. Scott Ireland, removed him from his temporary assignment on a federal counter-terrorism task force because he refused to share information about his work with the unit, believing it would violate federal laws and policy.

When he learned he was being called back to work at the fusion center, Loder voiced concerns the unit was illegally collecting and retaining information about citizens engaged in lawful behavior, including protesters of the Central Maine Power Co. corridor proposals, people who applied to buy guns from firearms dealers and counselors at the Seeds of Peace summer camp.

The bombshell allegations put the state’s top police officials on the defensive and renewed scrutiny of the fusion center. Soon after, in June 2020, a nationwide hack of police information revealed the unit was closely monitoring Black Lives matter demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, sharpening critiques of the unit’s activities. Last year, Democratic lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to pass a bill to defund the unit.

On Monday, lawyers for the state reiterated their argument that Loder was removed from his assignment to the federal task force not because he was being punished, but because the agency needed to fill a position in the fusion center being vacated by a retiring detective.

He was then denied a lateral transfer to a detective position in the southern major crimes unit because the agency had previously found him to be untruthful during an internal affairs case, damaging his ability to testify in future court cases, they said.

Loder previously worked in the unit so he made the most sense to take on the job in the fusion center, according to the state. Only then did Loder raise concerns about the unit’s activities in meetings with his then-supervisors, Johnston and Ireland.

When asked on Monday if he agreed with Loder that the fusion center violated federal or state privacy laws, Stevenson said “absolutely not.” He attended two meetings in spring 2018 in which Loder voiced concerns about the unit. While he could not remember the details of either, he said Loder was “going off” unlike he’d ever seen a trooper speak to a supervisor.

“He was not clear to me,” Stevenson said. “I had no idea at the time and still don’t know what he was talking about, but he was making allegations or illegal activity.”

Loder’s attorney, Cynthia Dill, said she hopes to clarify Loder’s concerns over the course of a trial set to last all week, although that picture is likely to come together slowly if Monday was any indication. She explained to jurors during her opening statements that because so many of the trial witnesses have busy schedules, the testimony may seem slightly out of order, and a narrative will come together in fragments that she plans to knit together by the end.

“If this was Hollywood, the evidence would come in chronological order,” she said. “Because it’s Maine, it will be more like a quilt.”

In addition to Stevenson, four other state employees who worked for or with the unit in some capacity answered questions about their jobs. Dill’s questions often sought to probe instances where the unit gathered information about members of the public engaged in activity that lacked any connection to criminal conduct, suggesting it would violate federal privacy law.

Former state police attorney Chris Parr told the court that in his opinion, federal privacy laws did not apply to the information included in the center’s activity reports. But he had some concerns.

Dill asked him about a report that documented public comments made at a meeting in Farmington regarding CMP’s controversial transmission line that was on track to run through western Maine before being defeated by voters in 2021.

“That certainly concerned me because I didn’t understand the rationale for having that,” Dill quoted him as saying in a deposition last year.

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.