Lt. Michael Johnston answers questions about the Maine Information and Analysis Center during a presentation about the operation in Augusta on July 30, 2020. Johnston testified Thursday during the fourth day of a federal whistleblower trial for a lawsuit in which a former Maine State Police trooper alleges that his superiors retaliated against him after he raised concerns that the center illegally collected and retained information about law-abiding citizens. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Current and former top officials with the Maine State Police said they had no idea a former trooper had concerns that the agency’s intelligence unit illegally collected and retained information about law-abiding citizens when they decided to remove him from a federal counter-terrorism task force.

George Loder only came forward with those claims after the agency’s top brass made the decision to call him back to the unit due to chronic staffing shortages, the officials testified in federal court Thursday, the fourth day of Loder’s federal whistleblower trial in Portland. Likewise, his refusal to share details about his work on the task force had nothing to do with the transfer, they said.

“I made this decision before I was aware of any allegations of illegal activity,” said Christopher Grotton, who has since retired as the state police major who oversaw the Maine Information and Analysis Center in Augusta.

Retired Col. John Cote, then chief of the state police at the time, testified that he endorsed the decision without knowing of Loder’s concerns. He didn’t become aware of them until months after Loder spoke up in the spring of 2018.

Thursday’s testimony came mostly from high-ranking state police officials who defended their actions related to Loder and the agency’s data-collection policies. They outlined a narrative of events that conflicts with the version Loder gave when he took the stand for several hours on Wednesday.

Loder sued the agency in 2020, claiming he lost his task force assignment and was later passed over for another detective job because he pushed back against information-sharing policies he believed were illegal.

With little more than testimony to go on, the jury will ultimately have to decide which story to believe as they head into deliberations on Friday. Was Loder a veteran cop who resisted doing what he thought was wrong, only to be punished for it? Or was he misguided — only raising an alarm after getting upset that he was being transferred to a desk job an hour away from where he lived?

Loder’s former supervisors, then-Sgt. Michael Johnston and retired Lt. Scott Ireland said Thursday that Loder’s allegations took them by surprise during a meeting on May 29, 2018, at state police headquarters in Augusta where they discussed his return to the Maine Information and Analysis Center.

“He was making all sorts of claims and statements. ‘I have a medical condition. I can’t work in an office. I can’t be in a cubicle.’ That’s when he made claims for the first time about the MIAC,” Johnston said, providing more vivid details of a meeting that has come up over and over during the trial.

“He seemed out of control. He seemed unhinged. There was no reaching him,” Johnston said, echoing Ireland’s testimony.

Eventually Loder left the meeting to head to the bathroom. Johnston and Ireland said they were so concerned about his well being that they worried he might be a risk to himself or the public if he left headquarters — in a cruiser and with a firearm — in such an upset state.

Loder hadn’t raised any concerns about illegal activity about two weeks earlier, when the three met to go over his performance evaluation and to let Loder know he was coming back to the intelligence unit, often referred to as the state’s fusion center, Ireland said. Loder had expressed a desire to work closer to home in Scarborough, and lost his temper and yelled at his bosses during a conference call the next day when they told him no such job openings were available, they said.

Loder testified Wednesday that during the May 29 meeting, he asked several times to go to the bathroom because he worried he might become sick due to an excruciating headache stemming from an ongoing medical issue that forced him to go on leave shortly thereafter. He acknowledged the “heated” nature of the confrontation but cast it in a different light, saying that he felt distressed that his superiors were transferring him into the very unit he had expressed concerns about for a while.

Responding to questions from the state’s attorneys, Johnston also went into greater detail than during his previous testimony about why he believed the fusion center is not subject to the federal privacy law Loder has accused it of violating. While the order establishing the fusion center states that it must comply with that law, Johnston said the unit’s internal database is more of a record management system than a criminal intelligence database.

He also defended himself against an example Loder gave Wednesday of the kind of information practices that worried him. Loder said Johnston used derogatory language in an email to fusion center members about a tip the FBI received related to a Maine man of Middle Eastern descent who had rented a car.

Loder had questioned why Johnston alerted the center to a tip about someone doing nothing illegal, though Johnston said that was exactly why he sent the email.

“Knowing our staff would eventually see it, I gave them early heads up…. It was my opinion this was a stereotype of the worst kind from a citizen tipster,” he said. “I was absolutely not using a derogatory racist term. I take great personal and professional offense that I would ever do that.”

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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.