State lawmakers are planning formal hearings on Maryland State Police efforts to spy on peace activists and death penalty protesters, potentially paving the way for a thorny debate in the next General Assembly session over whether to restrict the law enforcement agency's authority.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said yesterday that he plans to hold hearings, possibly in September, to question state officials about the infiltration of activist groups by covert agents. The spying and surveillance over a 14-month period through 2006 was exposed last week when state police turned over records to the American Civil Liberties Union, which had sued to obtain them.
"The best face you can put on this is that it was an egregious misapplication of resources," said Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "With all of the problems we have in the state of Maryland, I can't believe that the state police would be wasting time spying on folks who are opposed to the death penalty or war."
David Rocah, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, called on Gov. Martin O'Malley yesterday to take the lead by introducing legislation when the General Assembly reconvenes in January to impose legally binding controls on the state police. Rocah said new laws are needed because internal guidelines - and promises from the Democratic governor that the spying has ceased in his administration - are not sufficient to curb abuses.
"It will be important for the legislature to put in place controls that are binding to ensure that internal controls are, in fact, in place and to provide a mechanism to ensure they are, in fact, followed," Rocah said. "Because if there were internal controls in place here, they obviously weren't followed."
O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec said the governor has had lengthy discussions with Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, the state police superintendent, and commanders in charge of investigations. Adamec said O'Malley, who took office in January 2007, is confident that the state police will not undertake surveillance without evidence of wrongdoing during his administration and that legislation isn't necessary at this point.
"While the state police need the tools and the resources necessary to legally investigate credible threats against public safety, the governor has been clear that any and all investigations that the state police conduct should be based on those credible threats," Adamec said.
Sheridan said in a statement Thursday that no illegal actions have ever been taken by state police against citizens or groups lawfully exercising their right to free speech and assembly.
According to the ACLU, which released 43 pages of state police summaries and computer logs last week, at least two undercover agents spent 288 hours monitoring and recording peaceful protest activities. During that time, 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.
One printout indicates that an undercover officer attended meetings in 2005 of the Pledge of Resistance and reported information about the group's political activities, including discussions about a meeting with then-Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin in which they asked him to support a timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq. Some of the group's most active members are Catholic nuns, the ACLU noted.
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 said that nothing in the documents indicated criminal activity or intent and that they only referenced two instances that could be construed as unlawful activity - both of which were cases of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Lawmakers said it is too early to determine whether legislation will be introduced and what form it might take. Frosh said that, in theory, lawmakers could draft a measure to specifically prohibit the state police from spying unless they have probable cause that a crime has been committed or is about to be committed. Drafting such language would entail a balancing act to ensure police can still fight crime and protect homeland security, he said.
The ACLU has asked O'Malley's administration to preserve surveillance records because the group is considering litigation against state or local authorities. Rocah said a lawsuit might not be necessary if there is a full and public accounting of all spying by state police and if new rules are put in place through legislation. He said individuals who have been the subject of spying also should be notified and given the chance to remove their names from any databases into which they have been entered.
Sen. James Brochin, who requested a formal hearing in a letter to Frosh, said lawmakers would seek answers to many unresolved questions, including what prompted the police investigations, what threat the protest groups posed, who gave final clearance for the operation and whether former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was briefed on it.
"The whole thing is disturbing; it's unsettling," said Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, who added that he is "somewhat comforted" by assurances made by Sheridan and O'Malley and isn't considering legislation.
Brochin said he would like to hear testimony from Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins, the former state police superintendent in Ehrlich's administration when the surveillance occurred, as well as from "anyone else involved in this operation" and Sheridan.
Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said that the former governor was not made aware of the operation. Hutchins said he could not recall any conversation with Ehrlich about it, and he declined to discuss the specifics of the operation because he had not seen what was turned over to the ACLU. Hutchins said he would agree to testify in Annapolis.
"Whatever occurred during my tenure I obviously am responsible for. I took that position when I was there, and I will continue to take that position," Hutchins said. "But I haven't the foggiest idea what documents they have or the details of it."
Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Republican on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said that he wouldn't object to holding a hearing on the matter but that he would like to hear from both sides before making any judgments.
"I'm not going to rest on any conclusions they are abusing their authority," said Mooney, who represents Frederick and Washington counties. "But I don't have any problem looking into how they are using their authority."
For previous coverage of the spying case, plus documents and video from the ACLU, go to baltimoresun.com/spying