The Maine State Police violated the law in 2018 when supervisors removed a now retired trooper from a joint law enforcement task force and transferred him to the agency’s intelligence unit in Augusta, a jury found Friday.
Jurors deliberated for more than five hours before finding the state agency violated the Maine Whistleblowers’ Protection Act. They awarded George Loder, 53, of Scarborough $300,000 in damages after hearing 4 1/2 days of testimony in U.S. District Court in Portland.
Loder left the courthouse smiling and holding his wife’s hand shortly after the verdict was announced.
“It feels good is probably the best way to say it,” he said. “It just feels good.”
Loder’s attorney, Cynthia Dill of Portland, called her client courageous and said it had been an honor to represent him.
“His courage is going to serve the privacy interests of all of us,” she said. “I think the state police needs to fix the activity report, purge the personal identifying information of private citizens who are engaging in lawful activity, and I hope the Mills administration does a thorough vetting of the people in this case who are responsible.”
Assistant Attorney General Paul Suitter, who defended the Maine State Police’s actions, declined to comment Friday night or to say whether the verdict would be appealed to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
Jurors had to decide whether Loder’s claim that his bosses pulled him from a federal task force and then denied him another detective job because he spoke up against data-sharing practices he believed violated federal law was valid.
His state police supervisors, meanwhile, testified that Loder only brought forward those allegations after they informed him they would be transferring him to a new job at the agency’s intelligence unit, the Maine Information and Analysis Center, that he did not want. They later denied him a spot in the southern major crimes unit of the Maine State Police because of a credibility concern, not as retaliation, they said.
While the verdict hinged on Loder’s retaliation claim, it was the spying allegation at the heart of the trial that captured the public’s attention when he filed suit in May 2020. Civil liberties advocates have long criticized the Maine Information and Analysis Center and other so-called fusion centers across the country for surveilling the public, illegally or not. Maine Democratic lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to defund the unit in 2021.
The long-awaited trial has put a magnifying glass on a unit that is used to fending off accusations of spying and secrecy. Maine State Police officials have testified that they aren’t breaking any laws by storing personally identifying information, which often comes into the unit through tips or requests, because their internal record system isn’t considered a criminal intelligence database.
In closing arguments Friday, Assistant Attorney General Paul Suitter, who was defending the state police, depicted both the substance of Loder’s allegations and his characterization of the Maine State Police in court as unreasonable, if not conspiratorial. Not a single witness who took the stand during the trial backed up Loder’s concerns, Suitter said.
“You will have to decide which witnesses came to court, looked you in the eye and gave reasonable testimony,” Suitter said. All but Loder did, he said.
“The plaintiff has tried to put the MIAC on trial,” Suitter concluded. “The question here is not whether you like or agree that the nation’s network of fusion centers, found in every state across the country, are good public policy. That’s a question for lawmakers to decide. The question at issue in that case is whether the plaintiff suffered retaliation as outlined by the Maine Whistleblower Retaliation Act.”
Dill disagreed. Police aren’t allowed to retain information about people without a connection to a crime, she said. Her client’s bosses didn’t like it when he blew the whistle, and, now, they are trying to smear his credibility in defense of their actions, she claimed in her closing argument.
“He blew the whistle. It was hard on the ears. If George Loder isn’t protected by the Whistleblower Protection Act, who is?” Dill said.
“We have a right to not have information about us, personally identifying information — names, addresses, telephone numbers … in a system maintained by the government, a secret database that it can search by name and pull up, ‘Oh, this is when you went to a protest? This is another time you went to a protest? Oh, you bought a gun? You were a counselor at a peace camp?” she said.
“That’s what this case is about at its core: about the privacy of Maine citizens,” Dill told jurors.
Although the jury was tasked with determining a damage award, U.S. District Judge Jon Levy, who presided over the trial, will determine what Loder is owed in back pay and benefits.