Opponents of Central Maine Power’s proposed transmission line project say they are frustrated at delays in obtaining information collected about them by a secretive Maine State Police intelligence unit that’s come under scrutiny for its methods and tactics in recent months.

Separately, Sandra Howard, the leader of Say NO to NECEC, said last week that since 2018, the FBI has been in regular contact with her to gauge whether members of the opposition group have become radicalized, she said – which she suspects was one result of the local surveillance efforts by state police. NECEC stands for New England Clean Energy Connect.

Sandra Howard, leader of the Say NO to NECEC group opposed to Central Maine Power’s proposed transmission line.  Kevin Miller/Staff Writer

Howard’s group was first alerted to the possible surveillance by state police when the group was named in a lawsuit by a state trooper, George Loder, who filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit in May against the Maine Information and Analysis Center and his former state police supervisors. He alleged that he suffered professional retaliation when he called out what he believed were unethical and illegal collection of data about Mainers who were not suspected of committing any crimes.

Loder alleged that state police collected information on the Say NO to NECEC group based on a flimsy pretext – such as littering – to justify collecting and retaining information about opponents to CMP’s propose high-voltage transmission line.

In response to questions, state police Lt. William Harwood said the agency does not obstruct or delay Freedom of Access Act requests.

“Any allegations to the contrary are false,” Harwood said. The agency is working through the activists’s request and will provide any publicly releasable records as soon as possible, he said.

“The department is confident that the MIAC is operating in accordance with applicable laws, policies and procedures and best practices that safeguard people’s privacy, civil liberties and civil rights,” Harwood said.

The FBI, in a statement, said it is longstanding policy not to comment on the activity of its agents, including whether they conducted specific interviews.

“However, generally speaking, we can tell you the FBI routinely engages with community members, law enforcement and private sector partners,” said FBI spokeswoman Kristen Setera. “Our efforts are focused on identifying, investigating and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity. We are not focused on activities protected by the First Amendment.”

Under the MIAC’s revised privacy policy, anyone may request information about themselves that the MIAC collected. Last week, the Maine State Police confirmed that MIAC held information pertaining to the three activists who submitted requests about themselves, but has turned over documents to only one person, Howard.

“I really think the whole idea is they don’t want anybody to know they were investigating us,” said Ed Buzzell, 63, a Registered Maine Guide from Moxie Gore who has been a member of the opposition group since 2018. “I’m not too impressed with the process. Either way, I’m just mad that I’m being investigated by the state police.”

Buzzell said he requested his information in May, and it took two months to get a response via email: Yes, the state police have records containing Buzzell’s name, but releasing the records would compromise the privacy of other people named in the documents.

His request was denied. So Buzzell asked for a redacted copy last week, but that is still no guarantee that anything will be released to him.

“I will review the subject records to determine whether the privacy-related concerns would be able to be resolved by redacting the records,” wrote state police attorney Christopher Parr, in a message dated Tuesday, in response to Buzzell.

Although Buzzell has considered himself a longtime supporter of law enforcement personnel he encounters out in the field, he said the recent experience with the state police intelligence center has eroded his trust in state police supervisors.

Another corridor opponent, Linda Lee, 70, of Bowdoin said she received a confirmation last week that yes, state police at the intelligence center were in possession of records that contained her name. But the state police unit, which has access to an array of databases, including Bureau of Motor Vehicles records, said it could not confirm with certainty that the Linda Lee listed in their records was the Linda Lee who requested the information.

When she learned that police were collecting information on Say NO to NECEC, Lee said she was angry, but not altogether surprised. She could think of no good reason that police would want to keep tabs on her, save for her love of the 1975 novel by Edward Abbey, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” a fictional story about environmentalists who used sabotage to prevent damage from construction that encroached into wilderness.

Although the characters in the book break the law to protect the natural environment, Lee said she advocates for nonviolence and civic engagement.

“If they’re investigating people and taking the time and effort to do that, then they certainly should be aware of the Linda Lee in the information they have, but they can’t figure out which Linda Lee I am supposed to be,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to me. I think there’s more to it. To me, it’s like they’re just trying to quiet us down and kind of put it under the carpet. Why would they spend all the time, and it probably costs the state money, to do these investigations and then say they don’t have specific information?”

Lee said she has taken a slightly darker view of public officials since getting involved in advocacy work.

“It really makes me sad and it makes me angry, to thing about what’s happening with our state and with these agencies who are supposed to be protecting our state. I’m learning that’s not really the case.”

The Maine Information and Analysis Center is one of roughly 70 so-called fusion centers around the country that were created after the attacks of Sept. 11 to smooth the flow of information among local, state, tribal and federal law enforcement agencies to help prevent another terrorist attack. But soon after their creation, many fusion centers switched gears away from terrorism and began focusing their efforts on all crimes and criminal enterprises.

Howard, the anti-corridor project’s leader, said she received from the state police the documents pertaining to her on Friday: a copy of a request for a permit – and the letter from Augusta Capitol Police granting it — to demonstrate on a Friday morning in September 2018, when her group rallied before a meeting at the Department of Environmental Protection.

Shortly after that time, Howard said she was contacted by agents at the FBI, and two agents drove to her workplace in New Hampshire at Keene State College to meet her in person, and asked her about the group’s philosophy and intentions. Why did they oppose the transmission line project? Who were the members? Who founded the organization? Will they be taking any direct action? Has anyone inside become radicalized?

Howard told them she planned to use every legal avenue to oppose CMP’s project, but that she had no interest in or tolerance for violence, she said. Since then, the agents have kept in touch, roughly every month or two, or after the project obtains a new permit or reaches a regulatory milestone. It was preventative maintenance, the agents told her, and that they like to monitor large groups that may have the potential for conflict. Since then, Howard has said she’s reported some “sketchy interactions” she’s had with people through the group – she has nothing to hide, she said – and knew she could turn to the FBI if someone in the group began suggesting violence or destructive behavior.

“They seemed very concerned about the potential for citizens of Maine that would get so upset that they do something destructive, and that’s everything we’re fighting against,” Howard said. “As these permits get approved, there’s these milestones, they check in with me. I’m just wondering if that information that was gathered and supposedly passed on to CMP (by the Maine State Police) was passed on to the FBI.”

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