AUGUSTA, Maine — A renewed effort to shut down a controversial Maine State Police intelligence unit has bipartisan support from two top lawmakers but is running into familiar opposition from Gov. Janet Mills’ administration and police agencies.
A prior attempt to abolish the Maine Information and Analysis Center, which was the subject of a whistleblower lawsuit and scrutinized after hundreds of its documents were leaked online, passed the House in 2021 before failing in the Senate by a wide margin.
This year’s measure is different since it comes with the support of both House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, and House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor. That ensures another robust debate on the issue even if it runs into the same political problems as the last one did.
“The privacy of Mainers should be something we strive to protect, not exploit,” Sen. Pinny Beebe-Center, D-Rockland, the bill’s chief sponsor, told members of the Legislature’s criminal justice panel during a Thursday hearing.
A so-called “fusion center” that Gov. John Baldacci established in 2006 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Maine Information and Analysis Center collects, analyzes and shares intelligence between the federal government and state and local agencies. It also provides analytical support for crimes of a complex or statewide nature.
In 2020, hundreds of documents from the Maine State Police unit were published online by an activist group, which altogether released more than a million files stolen from police departments nationwide. The leaked documents showed the center was closely watching protests over racism and police brutality that coincided with nationwide demonstrations in 2020.
The leaked documents gave details about pending investigations and the names of suspects who may have never been charged with a crime as well as identifying information about abuse and overdose victims. The 2020 leak also showed requests made by local, state and some federal law enforcement agencies for help gathering information on suspects and crimes.
The whistleblower lawsuit from since-retired Maine State Police Trooper George Loder alleged police illegally collected personal data on gun owners, protesters and counselors at an international camp for Arab and Israeli teens, angering lawmakers from across the political spectrum.
In December, a jury awarded Loder $300,000 after finding the state agency violated state whistleblower law by pulling him from a federal task force and then denying him another detective job because he spoke up against data-sharing practices he deemed illegal.
Faulkingham said as an “avid” supporter of 2012 presidential candidate Ron Paul, he may have been placed on a watch list by a similar Missouri-based fusion center that tied supporters of the presidential candidate and libertarians to “the modern militia movement.” While lauding law enforcement, he said police using the intelligence center are “not in control of this ship.”
“This ship is steered by our nation’s surveillance state,” Faulkingham said.
But the Mills administration is once again opposed to abolishing the center, with Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck reiterating Thursday testimony he gave in 2021 that it would weaken cooperation between law enforcement and the private sector.
A separate measure heard Thursday would order an auditor in Attorney General Aaron Frey’s office to conduct “systematic, ongoing oversight” of the center, rather than ending it. That bill from Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, has eight cosponsors, including Talbot Ross.
But Brendan McQuade, a University of Southern Maine associate criminology professor and a critic of fusion centers, urged lawmakers to eliminate the center.
“The MIAC,” McQuade said, using the acronym for the unit, “is preoccupied with minor property and drug crimes.”
Eliminating the center would cut six positions and nearly $800,000 in state costs in 2023-2024 and more than $1 million the following fiscal year, according to Beebe-Center’s bill.