PORTLAND, Maine — A legislative committee intends to question state law enforcement officials about allegations of illegal surveillance that were raised in a federal whistleblower lawsuit, one of its leaders said.
The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee must question Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck and others, but the litigation could play a role in the timing, said the House co-chair of the committee, Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell.
A trooper claimed in the lawsuit that the Maine Information and Analysis Center gathered and stored intelligence on gun buyers, power line protesters, and employees of a camp for Israeli and Arab teens. It also alleges the state illegally stored license plate data.
“We can’t ignore these allegations. We need to have a full and transparent hearing with the commissioner,” Warren said.
Sauschuck and the state police chief, Col. John Cote, defended the practices of the so-called “fusion center” that was created to collect, analyze and share intelligence between the state and federal government. Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey also disputed the allegations.
The Maine ACLU last week called for a state police internal investigation, legislative oversight and an independent investigation.
The allegations have the potential to bring together libertarians, gun rights activists and protest groups, all of whom are concerned about the surveillance allegations against the fusion center.
The legislative committee’s questions will center around “what kind of data they are collecting, and what kind of data they are holding, and why,” Warren said. “I have a lot of questions.”
The committee’s Senate chairwoman, Democrat Susan Deschambault, didn’t immediately return messages on Monday.
The Legislature’s Labor Committee already had a hearing via video conferencing, so the precedent is set for a hearing even though the Legislature remains adjourned, Warren said.
There also could be an investigation by the Government Oversight Committee and a legislative watchdog, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, she said.
The fact that there’s active litigation could stymie some efforts to obtain information, but that doesn’t mean lawmakers can’t begin thinking about what needs to be changed in terms of oversight, she said.
Warren said she had a bill in 2015 to boost oversight of the fusion center but the proposal didn’t move forward. She said she thinks there will be renewed interest in her latest proposal and other ideas for oversight.