The Edward T. Gignoux United States Courthouse in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

For the first time in his own words, a former Maine State Police trooper described how his supervisor pressured him to share sensitive details about his work on a federal task force and, using specific examples, outlined the reasons he came to believe the state’s intelligence unit is illegally keeping information about law-abiding people.

George Loder’s testimony came on the third day of his federal whistleblower trial in Portland and painted the most detailed narrative of the bombshell allegations at the heart of his lawsuit against the state police. Loder said he was stripped from a post on the FBI’s counterterrorism task force and then denied a job with the agency’s southern major crimes unit because he refused to follow orders or participate in activities he believed were illegal.

“He wanted me to … basically discuss what cases I was working on — who I was investigating and why, what I did, in the weekly meeting,” Loder testified, recounting a November 2017 conversation with his former supervisor, then-Sgt. Michael Johnston. Johnston had asked him to begin sharing updates about his federal assignment with the Maine Information and Analysis Center, a law enforcement information hub overseen by the state police that is sometimes referred to as a fusion center.

“I said, ‘I think that it would be illegal for me to talk about what I’m doing this week.’ I have no problem saying I’m reviewing information about subpoenas, [for example], but I wasn’t going to round robin the table saying, ‘This is what I found,” Loder said.

Loder believed that details of the cases he worked on with the task force — including the methods and targets in federal investigations — were protected by federal rules that prohibited him from disclosing them without special permission from the FBI or for a legitimate reason, he said. The fusion center, itself a task force-style entity, comprises officials from various state and federal agencies, such as the state police, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

Johnston testified Tuesday that he never asked Loder to violate any laws, and attorneys for the state corroborated his testimony by citing an email he wrote to Loder in which he said so.

Johnston, who no longer works in the fusion center and has since been promoted to lieutenant, and other state officials, have denied the state police retaliated against Loder for speaking up, saying they moved him off the task force to fill a vacancy in the fusion center. None of the state and federal law enforcement officials who have testified so far said they shared Loder’s view that the fusion center operated in violation of any laws, though some testimony suggested it was in violation of its own privacy policy.

Jurors will ultimately have to decide whether they believe Loder’s version of events and whether his concerns were reasonable enough to entitle him to protections as a whistleblower.

Loder told the court Wednesday that, while Johnston may have put in writing that he didn’t want Loder to break any rules, the then-sergeant made it clear that he wanted more detail.

“He got annoyed that I questioned his decision, I guess,” Loder said, referring to the November 2017 conversation. “He said something to the effect of, ‘What value does the state police get by having a state police detective pretend to be an FBI agent?’ Well, I’m not pretending to be anything. He reminded me at the end of the day I worked for him.”

Meanwhile, Loder had concerns about the way the fusion center kept personally identifiable information in its internal database, called the “activity report.” He understood that the unit’s privacy policy and federal privacy rules meant the unit should not be allowed to retain information about people without some connection to criminal activity or public safety.

Johnston disagreed, Loder said. In February 2018, Loder passed along a tip about a man believed to be part of the sovereign citizen’s movement, a group associated with violence that believes it is not under the jurisdiction of the federal government. Loder asked Johnston if the fact that the man was driving a car with fake license plates — something commonly associated with sovereign citizens and a traffic office on its own — would be enough information to meet the fusion center’s criteria to be included in its database.

“He told me they didn’t need a criminal nexus,” Loder recalled, using a police term that means information has some connection to a crime.

Loder cited another example during that period when someone passed him a tip about a Middle Eastern man who rented a car to drive to the New York area. The tip included the man’s name, date of birth and a license plate number but not much else. Loder ultimately decided not to share that tip with the fusion center because none of the information suggested the man had done anything illegal.

“For all intended purposes, someone complained that a Middle Eastern guy rented a car,” Loder said. “I intentionally did not share it with the MIAC that week.”

Loder later found out that Johnston learned about the tip by querying an FBI tip database for the word “Maine.” He then copy and pasted it into the fusion center’s activity report, including the man’s personally identifying information, and sent it out in an email to members of the unit.

Johnston had included some derogatory, “race-based” commentary at the top of the email, Loder said, which also didn’t sit well with him.

Loder’s former supervisors have testified that they didn’t know about Loder’s concerns about the fusion center until after they informed him they were moving him off the FBI task force, so, therefore, any concerns could not have influenced their decision. But Loder said on Wednesday that he spoke up beforehand and that Johnston told him federal privacy rules didn’t apply to the unit.

He also said his bosses told him shifting reasons for why they were calling him back to the fusion center in May 2018, leading him to believe it was all a pretext because he kept resisting orders to share FBI task force information. In late March 2018, Loder said Johnston gave him no indication he wouldn’t be allowed to finish out his career on the task force.

Then, in mid-May, less than two weeks after he’d again told Johnston he was worried about increasing what he shared about the task force and voiced concerns about the fusion center’s activities, “I was hit with the fact that I was being pulled,” he said.

At that time, his bosses didn’t mention the transfer was because he needed to take over the duties of another detective who was leaving the fusion center, and they even told him they’d look for other jobs in the agency that he might shift into. Later in the month, they told him he was needed in the fusion center, resulting in a tense meeting where Loder reiterated his objections in a raised voice that got him written up for insubordination.

“It got heated. I told them I knew exactly what this was about,” he said.

Loder took medical leave until the fall of 2018, then returned to the fusion center in Augusta, where he felt ethically compromised and hated working at a desk, far from where he lived in Scarborough.

He tried to shift into an open detective position in the major crimes unit closer to home, but he was denied — something he also claimed was retaliation. The state has said he didn’t get the position, however, because he lied during an internal affairs proceeding in the 1990s and that there would be a credibility issue should he need to testify in court.

Loder defended himself by saying he has testified in state and federal court numerous times since then, and it had never been a problem.

He said the issue stemmed from a knee-jerk comment he made during an interview with internal investigators when he felt they asked him something “out of bounds.” He immediately admitted to it because he realized he shouldn’t have lied, he said. The state police removed the resulting discipline — a two-week suspension — from his personnel file a few years ago after deeming enough time had gone by.

He ultimately decided to take a job patrolling the interstate as a trooper. It was a demotion in rank though he earned more money because he worked so much overtime due to the agency’s staff shortages.

The move was voluntary, but “I felt I had no choice,” Loder said.

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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.