Nov. 28-A former attorney for the state police said a secretive state intelligence agency collected and retained personal information on at least one Maine resident because that person spoke out at a 2018 public hearing against the controversial Central Maine Power corridor.
Christopher Parr, the former staff attorney for state police until May 2022, testified at a civil trial Monday that he did not know that the Maine Information and Analysis Center had collected the social media pages, photographs and other personal information of the political activist until that person filed a freedom of information request for documents related to their identity.
When asked whether that was the only time police collected information on residents engaged in lawful activity, Parr paused as he considered his response.
"I want to be able to say with certainty, but I can't," he said.
It was one of several occasions where Parr struggled to directly answer questions about the MIAC's work and policies, including whether the center must follow federal privacy rules.
The details were revealed during the first day of a trial in federal court centered around a retired state police detective, George Loder, of Scarborough.
Loder is suing state police for what he said was retaliation. He says that when he blew the whistle on state police - claiming its intelligence unit was improperly collecting information on citizens engaged in lawful activity, including CMP protestors - he was removed from his post with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Portland and was denied a lateral transfer to another detective position, constituting professional retaliation.
The state has denied the claims and said Loder was removed from the task force because another detective retired and the agency needed Loder to fill the role because it was short-staffed. Loder was not selected for the lateral transfer, according to the state, because he lied to an internal police investigator in 1998, a credibility problem that meant he could not be assigned a position that required his testimony in court.
Parr was one of four witnesses - all current or former State Police employees or sworn officers - who were called to testify Monday by Loder's attorney, Cynthia Dill. The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensation for suffering emotional distress.
The civil case hinges on an employment dispute, but Dill's strategy has focused on showing that the MIAC engaged in questionable information collection, as Loder alleges.
"The report, or the (database) entry, whatever you want to call it, related to the public hearing that occurred on the NCEC corridor, I believe in Farmington, where I believe it was documenting the people who spoke on the corridor, I think it was about their position on the corridor," Parr said.
Parr said the collection of the political activist's information concerned him because he could not see a legitimate law enforcement purpose, and he could not articulate a specific threat a political activist posed by speaking at the hearing.
The MIAC is the state's so-called "fusion center," an information clearinghouse created after 9/11 to combat terrorism, but it now focuses more broadly on all types of crimes statewide, a shift that has taken place nationwide, alarming privacy advocates who say the intelligence centers have sweeping powers and lax oversight.
Although the executive order that created the MIAC in 2006 specifically says the agency should follow the federal privacy guidelines for intelligence and its analysts are still trained annually in how to follow those, Parr said he decided sometime before 2017 that the federal rules did not apply to the agency.
He said he decided after hearing from the officers running the intelligence unit at the time, Lt. Scott Ireland and then-Sgt. Michael Johnston.
During cross-examination, Assistant Attorney General Paul Suitter suggested police had a legal reason to collect the information about the power corridor protesters.
"At the time there were at least legitimate concerns that some members of the public were potentially threatening the (transmission corridor) infrastructure that was being proposed or built in that part of the state?" Suiter asked.
"From what I was told, that's my understanding, correct," Parr said.
"It's not violating any state rule?"
"Correct," Parr said.
Loder's trial is expected to last at least through Friday, with his attorney preparing to call several more witnesses, including Col. John Cote who led the state police until his retirement this year.