Review of state police is ordered

Ex-attorney general named to head inquiry

August 01, 2008|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,Sun reporter

Gov. Martin O'Malley announced yesterday that former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs will head an independent review of state police efforts to infiltrate and monitor activist groups opposed to the death penalty and the Iraq war.

The announcement comes days after lawmakers in Annapolis and on Capitol Hill called for hearings or inquiries into the matter. O'Malley said he took the step to get a "fresh view" of the state police activities that took place during the previous administration and to give the public assurance that the surveillance has been thoroughly investigated.

He also said the review would help in the development of new guidelines and protocols "to safeguard against this waste of resources ever happening again."

Sachs said he hoped to discover the "unvarnished truth" of what happened over the 14 months in 2005 and 2006 when the spying took place. Sachs, a former U.S. attorney, served two terms as state attorney general in the 1980s and later launched an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid against William Donald Schaefer. He retired from private law practice nearly a decade ago and often collaborates with the Public Justice Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy group.

"I have very little knowledge of this matter," Sachs said at a news conference in Annapolis. "I certainly have no prejudgment."

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has sent mass e-mails to Maryland activists, offering to file formal information requests on their behalf and asking for names of activists who could potentially be listed in surveillance records. ACLU officials said the group is trying to obtain a full accounting of any surveillance done by state police as well as local law enforcement and federal agents.

Details of the state police operation were made public by the ACLU, which sued to get the information. At least two undercover agents monitored and recorded peaceful protests, according to documents released by the organization.

The agents infiltrated the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance, a peace group; the Baltimore Coalition Against the Death Penalty; and the Committee to Save Vernon Evans, a death row inmate.

State police also entered the names of activists in a law enforcement database of people suspected of being terrorists or drug traffickers, the documents show.

The ACLU notes that nothing in the documents indicated criminal activity or intent by the protesters.

Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, state police superintendent, completed a preliminary review of the spying, and said last week that police launched the operation out of concern about possible violent protests around two planned executions in 2005.

Sheridan, who has repeatedly said the surveillance was legal, said yesterday that he would cooperate fully with the review panel headed by Sachs. Sheridan attended yesterday's news conference, as did current Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.

The inquiry is expected to take up to two months and will be a "broad review" into the surveillance and whether any names were improperly put in the law enforcement database, Gansler said.

Two members of the attorney general's office will be dispatched to work with Sachs, who is volunteering his time without pay.

The panel will not have subpoena power, though Gansler said he expects anyone involved to be "forthright and candid."

Gansler said that his predecessor as attorney general, J. Joseph Curran Jr., did not know about the surveillance and that there is no evidence that officers illegally wiretapped phones or wore wires or took any action that required a warrant. He also noted that the activist meetings attended by agents were public. He said the activities could have been prompted by public safety concerns but acknowledged that the situation raises questions about the improper use of police resources.

"Are we in a police state?" Gansler said. "That's the concern."

ACLU officials say they are concerned that the surveillance was more widespread, noting that the documents reference reports being sent to federal agencies including the National Security Agency and an unspecified military intelligence agency. Others refer to possible involvement by the Baltimore Police Department.

In one section of a document about an anti-death penalty protest in Baltimore, parts of which were redacted, the police notes refer to cover being provided by two covert officers from Baltimore Police Department's intelligence division. The notes say that "Baltimore Police also had a command van nearby in case of problems."

Baltimore City Police Spokesman Sterling Clifford said officers routinely attend protests to keep the peace, and that the department did not conduct surveillance on protest groups. He said the reference to "covert officers" providing cover means that plainclothes officers were there to protect state police.

Clifford added that other law enforcement agencies inform the department when they operate in the city as a "jurisdictional courtesy" and would have told the department whether any undercover state policemen were expected to be in the crowd.

"The insinuation that Baltimore City police were involved in this in an undercover capacity, there is no evidence of that, no factual basis for that," O'Malley said yesterday. He was mayor at the time.

laura.smitherman @baltsun.com

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